NYUAD iGEM has felt the responsibility of raising awareness on science-related topics and uptake of technologies since its inception in 2016. This year we began an initiative targeted at synthetic education in secondary schools and engaged with students in science festivals.
Over the last decade, the rapid developments in biotechnology have stood out with medical innovations and other successive breakthroughs such as genetically engineered products in the food industry. Biotechnology raises various issues with regard to ethics, the level of acceptable risk, and the usefulness of the new products. People would need to be informed about current technological advancements to make better personal and social choices as members of society. Despite the promising and proven applications of biotechnology, uninformed public perceptions of synthetic biology currently derive major ethnography-based decisions of policymakers. The development of CRISPR, for instance, has led to a huge public uproar in the past year. The founding group of EdBio - NYUAD iGEM - has worked extensively with CRISPR in its past project and saw a motivation to undertaking this initiative in hopes of better informing the general public about biotechnological tools. At the heart of ethically shaping public perceptions lie educational institutions that educate pupils in the field of synthetic biology that will have a profound impact on their future lives as adults in a number of areas. As part of its involvement in the world of synthetic biology, the founding group saw a need to bridge this gap by serving to communicate this new field to students pursuing secondary school education.
The exponential advancements in genetic engineering came about in the last quarter of the 20th century and educational curriculums have not yet been adjusted correspondingly. Even in areas where attempts have been made, lack of resources in forms of both tangible laboratories and teaching workforce is lacking. The lack of expensive requirements and training needed to carry-out and visualize even the simplest of synthetic biology experiments have rendered this essential contemporary field inaccessible to many. Textbooks developed by national curricula are often revised in low frequencies. But the techniques used in genetic engineering undergo advancements within short periods of time. Our initial analysis has found that the need to constantly synchronize curricula with current standards has inhibited even the most resourceful institutions from informing pupils with the knowledge. Even if teachers were capable and trained to demonstrate genetic engineering in class, the industry is fast-changing, and the teachers need to rely on something other than textbooks. For high schools that can not provide the high expertise, safety regulations, and costly labs (estimated cost of Dh500,000) required even to demonstrate the simplest concepts, genetic engineering is a discussion that remains in the confines of a social studies textbook.
EdBio is currently in its research and development stage developing a comprehensive tool kit that educated the basics of synthetic biology. A brief summary of the intended methods is discussed below:
- DNA replication kit would enable the user to visualize how DNA replicates the roles of different proteins (helicase, primase, and ligase) involved in the process.
- The plasmid is a circular ring that contains genetic information found in bacterial cells. It is at the center of understanding genetically modified organisms and the team is looking into developing a plasmid puzzle containing different gene/ DNA fragments (such as a promoter, antibiotic resistance gene, GFP, replication origin, lac operon, and repressor sequence) that shows how a combination of different genes/DNA fragments inserted into a plasmid vector determines different functions of the plasmid. For instance, if the plasmid carries GFP gene, the cell will exhibit green fluorescence under UV light. By changing the genes, the user can modify the function of the plasmid and explores how multiple genes work with each other to make the cell function. The group intends on making extensive use of Augmented Reality tools, to demonstrate fluorescence for instance, beyond the physical hardware components.
- CRISPR demonstration: CRISPR is a novel, precise, and popular genome-editing technique. The Odin, a company that sells CRISPR kits to the general public has recently raised 3 million USD within two rounds. In line with our mission of targeting educational sectors, our CRISPR kit would visualize how CRISPR Cas 9a and Cas 12a work.
- The translation kit demonstrates how different base pairs encode for different amino acids. The user can manipulate the sequence and observe the impact of the mutation. To bring this to a broader context, a change in base pair may result in sickle cell anemia. Our AR implementation will read the sequence assembled using base pairs and explain the diseases in more depth.
The customer segment of EdBio is comprised of secondary schools from institutions with strong educational frameworks and readily available funds for mobilization of educational materials. The target users are secondary students working towards a high school diploma. Our pilot target market is private secondary schools within Abu Dhabi and Dubai - the major cities of the UAE. The manifold decision to pilot our tool in these areas comes from their proximity to the current development team’s location, to utilize existing partnerships acquired through past NYUAD iGEM outreach activities, and the regional government’s commitment to advancing educational tools as part of growth strategies. In 2016, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, announced plans for a Dh1.5 billion investment in new schools, featuring laboratories for fields of which health and environment are one the primary targets.
The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Foundation is an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to education and competition, the advancement of synthetic biology, and the development of an open community and collaboration. The iGEM competition, an international team competition made up of predominantly undergraduate students interested in the field of synthetic biology, brought together the NYUAD iGEM group at New York University Abu Dhabi. The activities of the initiative are fully supported by the NYUAD iGEM group. The group is composed of undergraduate researchers from diverse backgrounds ranging from Engineering to Film Studies and hail from Australia, Albania, Egypt, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Argentina, China, Lebanon, Ghana, Palestine, Turkey, South Korea, and Taiwan. By forming a coalition of dedicated students at NYUAD, the group undertakes research projects, publish papers in peer-reviewed journals for the advancement of science, participate in competitions and commercialize novel technologies and innovative solutions. The group and all its activities are supported by a faculty board, Division of Science, Division of Engineering, and the whole NYUAD community. The NYUAD iGEM group intends on using the wide array of resources available to produce innovative solutions based on the field of synthetic biology. Under EdBio, tangential to our targeted outcome, we intend on using the tools developed to demonstrate the main venture of NYUAD iGEM and make it available to the wider iGEM community as a customizable tool to communicate project methods.
Given most institutions have already existing curricula and standards of procedure, EdBio intends on building the tool kit with a customizable approach informed by case studies and target market interactions. The group has planned to undertake validation and prototyping simultaneously in the near future.
The Abu Dhabi Science Festival (ADSF), the largest science festival in the region, is an annual 10-day event attracting more than 100,00 visitors held by the UAE's Department of Education and Knowledge to increase public engagement with the STEAM fields. Through the NYUAD Research Public Engagement Office, our team attended workshops held by John O'Donoghue, a Royal Society of Chemistry Education Coordinator, on effective science communication methods and received training on using the Spectroscopy in a Suitcase (SIAS) chemistry education toolkit for public events. In collaboration with the SIAS team, we designed a centrifugation experiment to incorporate synthetic biology to the demonstration's storyline and trained volunteers on running it for the audience.
We attended the Festival as science communicators, demonstrating research from the NYUAD Center for Genomics and Systems Biology to the public and providing information on iGEM to interested students.