Education and Engagement
Synthetic biology (SynBio) is a fairly new discipline within science and engineering. Novelty in science brings along challenges in the matter of regulation, social acceptance and ethics. We, team PHOCUS, believe the best way to overcome such barriers within SynBio is to involve a broader range of people than scientists alone in the discussion regarding the discipline and its implications. This is why we aimed to reach a wide demographic, particularly those we feel may be left out of the conversation on SynBio: the very young and the elderly.
PHOCUS on the media
PHOCUS made it to national TV! With a total number of 378.000 viewers, we promoted our project on the Dutch television news programme for children, Jeugdjournaal. The aim of this programme is to present main national and international news headlines in a way that is in the mindset of young viewers.
Social media posts were made regarding the locust crisis and specifically our project, reaching up to 150,000 people and counting!
We had the privilege to explain our project on the NPO Radio 1, the public-service radio channel in the Netherlands, broadcasting mainly news and sport.
We have been featured in several local newspapers.
We were invited to present a keynote lecture about our bio-pesticide at the Virtual Practitioners’ Conference on Locust Management of 2020. This conference was also attended by representatives of a.o. FAO, Oxfam Novib UK, International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology, Pakistan Ministry of National Food Security & Research, Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture, University of Bath, Penn State University, University of Graz, Arizona University. Speaking at this conference provided us with the great opportunity to engage with locust control experts and scientists from all over the globe.
To reach as many people as possible we came up with a fun and playful way to educate a wide audience about the locust crisis, our project and food sustainability. We made three short cooking videos in which we prepared recipes with freeze dried locusts while discussing various topics regarding our project. In the first video we made locust bagels, while talking about the locust crisis and its impact on the world. In the second video we made a crunchy salad with locusts. In this video we discussed our proposed solution for the locust crisis. In the last video we focused on the sustainability of eating insects, while baking a locust infused brownie. These videos were posted on our social media and on YouTube, all together we reached over a thousand people from different age groups and backgrounds.
Tasty locust bagel
Salad with a crunch
Blogs and podcasts
To inform people about our project, we wrote two blogs (plus one after the Jamboree) about our participation in the iGEM competition on Biotechnologie.nl, which is a digital platform that publishes news articles on current issues in biotechnology. It is issued by NEMO Kennislink, which is a well known Dutch organization that aims to bridge scientific research and everyday life.
In our first blog, we informed the public about the urgency of the problem we are tackling. Furthermore, we wrote about how we coped with Covid-19 during our iGEM project.
Our second blog, we dove into the specifics of how we try to solve the locust crisis.
Be patient! Our third blog will appear soon. We will tell you all about our experience at the Giant Jamboree.
We were not the only iGEM team that blogged about iGEM life. Teams from MSP Maastricht, Leiden, Groningen and Amsterdam also shared their project. This enabled us to share our experiences with other iGEM teams despite being unable to meet physically due to Covid-19 restrictions.
Just One Giant Lab (JOGL)
A platform for open and collaborative problem solving, JOGL encourages groups to find solutions to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. We joined the iGEM collaborative environment on the JOGL platform through an interview. We shared how we are contributing to no poverty (SDG 1), zero hunger (SDG 2) and life on land (SDG 15).
We have recorded a podcast for ‘We Talk Science’. We have talked to Dr. Sheba Agarwal-Jans, who invited us to the podcast, about our project. The goal of the podcast is to make others as passionate about science as she is. We Talk Science is a blog where one can get bits of information on a variety of topics, straight from the horse’s mouth, as scientists untangle the fabric of research in their own words.
We talked about the locust problem to create awareness and explained the science of our biopesticide. It was interesting to converse about our project and to answer the questions of Sheba. From the podcast we learned what kind of questions academics that have no background in SynBio may have regarding our project. We also practiced explaining what we do in a clear way. We hope to have informed others, those interested in science, about our project and the locust crisis.
FunFactFriday and social media
Popular social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook,Twitter enable us to reach a great number of people of various ages.
To inspire others about Synthetic Biology we shared fun facts on our Instagram every Friday. With these posts we wanted to teach people about synthetic biology, raise awareness on the locust crisis and introduce our followers to aspects surrounding our project.
We believe we cannot start too early with introducing children to the wondrous world of microbiology! Children are the world’s future and we want to give them a foundation to later contribute to the discussion on SynBio.
We wrote and illustrated a book for children aged 4-6 called 'Phage Fred in search of his friend.' As we are neither pedagogs nor writers, we had to ensure it was appropriate and engaging; the book has been checked by Franneke Forkink, a support staff member in kindergarten schools. The 26 paged children's book portrays phage Fred who is looking for a friend. He knows he has to look for a bacterium, but where does he start looking? He finds multiple bacteria in his journey but none of them are a match. Until he meets Bas the bacterium in the gut of a locust. Fred can hug Bas seeing as this phage is specific to this bacterium. In essence, the book teaches children about the existence of bacteria and bacteriophages, the fact that they are everywhere, and that there is specificity involved; Fred only has one friend, meaning the phage can only infect one type of bacterium.
The book has been written in Dutch and English to reach as many children as possible. Several copies were distributed amongst various (inter)national schools in The Netherlands, and an online version is shared with other iGEM teams and our friends at Cambrionics in India.
After reading our book to the children, we explained that bacteriophages do indeed exist and infect specific bacteria. We also explained that we are harnessing the possibilities bacteriophages, like phage Fred, offer to do good in the world. The kids thought beyond the book and related it to the real world, asking whether other things can be done with bacteriophages, such as tackling the Covid-19 pandemic. Our goal of introducing children to the world of SynBio has been met. We received lovely drawings and interpretations of our book as a little thank-you!
Cambrionics Life Science
We have had the opportunity to pair up with Cambrionics Life Science, a start-up located in Chennai, India. Their goal is to make the experience of learning biology an enriching and unforgettable one, engaging kids, teens and adults.
Their weekly quizzes had SynBio as their main topic. Over 50 children aged 4 to 11 attended these quizzes and actively participated in discussions on synthetic biology at the end of each quiz. As we were introduced as ‘scientists working in the field of SynBio,’ children asked what we are doing exactly. We had the chance to explain what our project entails to these curious children and ask them what they thought of it. Various questions followed on how we are ensuring our bacteriophage does not harm people, whether our bacteriophage could also tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, and broader questions about SynBio. Our favorite question was whether we could bring dinosaurs back to life through SynBio!
We have had the opportunity to discuss our project and its implications on several occasions with students that follow similar studies through lunch lectures and presentations. These were hosted by S.V. LIFE and S.V.N.B. Hooke, the study associations of Life Science & Technology and Nanobiology from Delft University of Technology (TU Delft). The students shared their inquiries and concerns with us regarding the engineering of phages, the safety of our project as a whole, and ethical questions on SynBio in general. Thus, including people with a similar background has helped us look critically at how we have designed our project.
Having the privilege to study at a renowned university like the TU Delft, we sought after the opinion of critical students that do not have the same background and bias as us.
We also gained new insights from holding a discussion with students from other faculties, via Salon. Salon is a discussion platform that aims to engage people in discussions on current topics, to respectfully share their views and experiences. Similar questions to those posed by fellow biotechnology students regarding the safety of our project arose from these discussions.
Oud Geleerd Jong Gedaan (Learnt by old, done by young)
We were keen to include the wisest people in society: the elderly. Having lived through multiple experiences, they may have grounds for diverging opinions regarding synthetic biology or our project. Including them in conversations on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics related topics may lead to novel output with regard to well grounded concerns or simply unanswered questions on their minds. Our aim was to entertain these questions and possible concerns to reach a consensus on the impact of synthetic biology and our project. We have done so by giving a series of progressive lectures, made possible by the Dutch foundation “Oud Geleerd, Jong Gedaan" (Learnt by old, done by young), that promotes students to give multiple lectures to the elderly. We worked hard to ensure the material presented was both engaging and informative, taking into account and respecting their differences in knowledge concerning the topic.
These lectures took the participants on a journey, from learning what microbes are, to what is being done with microbes in biotechnology to better the world, to what we are doing with bacteriophages to fight against the locust crisis. These interactive lectures gave us insights into their opinions on genetically modified organisms, bacteriophages and our project.
In the first lecture, we taught elderly how locust control operations work and that there are three methods of tackling locust swarms; using chemical pesticides, bio-pesticides and natural enemies. We briefly discussed our fourth way; by using a genetically engineered phage. We discussed with the elderly what they thought would be the most suitable method. According to them, bio-pesticides are preferred because these are safer. However, a combination of bio-pesticides and chemical pesticides is better because the crops need to be safeguarded during emergency situations. The genetically engineered bacteriophage was not preferred because of questions regarding the safety of the product.
In the second lecture, after we taught the elderly the principles of genetic modification, we had a discussion about to what extent we are allowed to genetically engineer organisms or to what extent these should be used. According to one lady, GMOs can negatively affect biodiversity and therefore, you should always look at problems with, for instance, crops can also be solved without the use of genetic modification. Another participant pointed out that she is a proponent of the use of genetically modified pigs to harvest our organs, since she already has heart valves from pigs. Regarding humans, the general consensus was that genetic alterations may only be implemented if this cures a genetic disease and that it is OK to make this decision for your unborn child. In conclusion, the participants were concerned about genetic modifications but not negative towards them.
In the third and last lecture about viruses, we taught the working principle of viruses, introduced bacteriophages once again and discussed the use of genetically modified bacteriophages to target locust swarms more in depth. During the lecture we debated the use of bacteriophages to treat infections and our project. It turned out that participants are positive towards bacteriophages to treat infections, especially for antibiotic resistant disease, but ambivalent towards our project. They felt that PHOCUS would need to be well developed and thoroughly tested to ensure it is really safe and effective before it is released into the environment. At the current stage of development, people are not fully convinced that it is safe and effective enough.