Science Communication & Education
Introduction & Target Audiences
Currently, synthetic biology is mentioned often at universities, and hinted at in science high schools, but are we ever brought fully into synthetic biology during our studies? Genetic modification is a public point of discussion, with designer babies and GMO crops as prominent examples, but is the general public aware of how much more synthetic biology has to offer?
We believe synthetic biology could improve so much more about our lives than most people are currently aware of. The complexity and stigma associated with synthetic biology can make it daunting to get involved with it. Therefore our main focus was to introduce synthetic biology to students both in highschool and at our university. Thus encouraging them to enter the field - or at least to look at their own field from a new perspective and integrating synthetic biology into a project in which they would have previously not even considered it. Our approach focused on introducing synthetic biology from a building block aspect, explaining how to combine these to solve concrete problems. Our goal was to spark interest in the possibilities of synthetic biology and to provide basic resources, with which one may pursue these interests.
Because no scientific research can be performed without the support of the public - especially a field that raises as many ethical questions as ours - we also aimed to bring synthetic biology closer to “laymen” who may have only heard about it in passing.
Social Media outreach
Implementation of synthetic biology in Switzerland - an interdisciplinary discussion
Beyond research and feedback from experts in the field, we actively sought discourse with the broader population. We envisioned a discussion, in which a researcher, a politician and a worker from an ethics commission would exchange about the risks and possibilities of synthetic biology. With several interested candidates, we were unfortunately unable to organize a live panel with the keynote speakers, due to safety concerns.
Instead, we approached the event in a creative way. By interviewing the experts consecutively, we were able to conform to a safe distance. But we included their answers in the interviews with other experts, in order to engage some sort of discussion, even though a direct exchange was not feasible.
In the following we will shortly describe our interdisciplinary interview partners, and you can read/watch the interview.
Prof. Dr. Beat Keller
Prof. Dr. Beat Keller is a Swiss biologist with a research focus on disease resistance in crop plants, especially in relation to fungal diseases; the evolution of plant pathogens; genome evolution; and transgenic cereals. He is also a member of the Research Council of the Swiss National Science Foundation, a member of the leadership team of the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium and a member of various collaborative European research programs.
Dr. Anna Deplazes Zemp
Dr. Anna Deplazes Zemp is a researcher and senior assistant at the Department of Philosophy at the University of Zurich. Her academic background in molecular biology and biochemistry as well as philosophy has motivated her to engage with the field of synthetic biology for more than ten years.
Martin Haab has been serving on the National Council for the Swiss government since 2019. As a member of the Commission for Science, Education and Culture, and a candidate of the Swiss National Party (Schweizer Volks Partei), he makes an effort to contribute to the local populations wellness. His main policy focus is on agriculture and besides aiming to communicate his first-hand experiences as a farmer, he is encouraging the broader audience to engage with questions surrounding agriculture and supply.
Synthetic Biology is often hinted at in natural science curriculums, but rarely beyond a quick look at GFP reporters or GMO crops. These topics are incredibly important of course, but they leave out so much of the potential in this field: the modular systems, the applications and the part possibilities. So we took it upon ourselves to show students not just the famous aspects of synthetic biology, but to show them further options, and introduce them to concepts instead of repetitive mechanisms. Our goal was to get them to think about all the ways synthetic biology could be used, how parts could be built and combined like lego bricks to create their own system, in short to spark their enthusiasm for synthetic biology - they can learn all the theory later.
High School Presentation
To engage potential future synthetic biologists we visited two high school classes in biology & chemistry. We presented them the absolute basics necessary and went immediately on to present different parts and possibilities with synthetic biology. We encouraged them to think about how these parts could interact and what kind of systems we can build out of these basic building blocks.
At the end we even constructed our project together with the students and let them think about how to achieve our goal with the parts presented.
Since we couldn't visit every classroom, especially in the current times, we decided to also make our presentation available online in case you want to reel someone in to synthetic biology.
Talking to students is a great start, but to really engage people with synthetic biology you need to let them get their hands on it. So we created our own workshop at the Life Science Learning Centre UZH. We invited a class to come spend the morning with us, to perform experiments we do in the lab everyday: Restriction digestion & Gel electrophoresis. In between experiments our focus would once again be to show the potential and modularity of synthetic biology by showing off parts and thinking about how to build systems together, but this time with a more applied touch. A key point to us here was to show how simple the basic system of synthetic biology is, how easily one can come up with new systems given simple parts. Hopefully, this encourages new members to join our community. With these experiments and showing how to combine parts in silico we would hope to inspire at least a few students to try their own project, once they reach university.
In a bachelor's degree in biology and biomedicine, we often talk about GFP and other synthetic approaches to diagnostics, but in the full 3 years we spend a mere 180 minutes actually dedicated to synthetic biology from the perspective of how to actually construct and develop new systems with it. As such we want to make students more aware of the options of this field and get them interested in potentially deepening their studies into the field of synthetic biology.
During the process of primary literature research, the sheer amount of knowledge and information can sometimes be overwhelming. One can easily get lost in the myriad of different papers published on a certain topic, making the discovery and retrieval of relevant information relatively cumbersome at times. Since in the beginning a lot of our team members were relatively new to the fascinating field of pattern recognition receptors (PRRs) and only had a very shallow understanding of plant immunity, so we experienced these struggles first hand. We asked ourselves, wouldn’t it have been nice to have had a concise and condensed source of information on the topic, highlighting all relevant information? This led us to write our plant immunity and PRR guide, aimed at providing the necessary background and resources for future iGEM teams, planning on making use of PRRs for a project of their own, as well as interested students, willing to delve into this captivating world. Ultimately it should facilitate the entry of anyone interested into this field of research.
We may have three lectures about synthetic biology in our mandatory course, but we thought this is by far not enough to educate students on synthetic biology and iGEM! So we worked together with Dr. Stefano Vavassori, lecturer at the University of Zurich, to facilitate access to synthetic biology content for UZH students.
In March of 2020, Dr. Vavassori was kind enough to grant us a couple of minutes of his lecturing time to shortly educate UZH students about synthetic biology and iGEM. Due to the lockdown we recorded a short presentation and submitted it to the online lecture, so all the students have access to the recording.
We are planning to make it a yearly tradition to educate more students on the topic of synthetic biology.
We can't be an iGEM project speaking of getting people interested in the field of synthetic biology without also making sure our legacy in the competition gets carried on. So we did exactly that and went into lectures advertising not just iGEM but a general introduction to synthetic biology and a presentation of our projects, to get university students into synthetic biology via iGEM.
To make it accessible to everyone, especially since attendance is currently limited at our university, we streamed and recorded it as well.
Of course we also had to show off our project in academic circles to gain feedback and improve on our project. Primarily this included our collaboration with the other Swiss teams (UniL & EPFL), for which we went to Lausanne to present our project and discuss it with the other teams and iGEM alumni. You can read more about that on our Collaboration page.
Additionally we will be presenting our project at our university, once it is completed. We are given the opportunity to present our research to our host lab, particularly to improve our own understanding of presenting academic research. One of our sponsors, the Science Alumni at the University of Zurich is also hosting us in early spring of 2021, to present our key take-aways from the project.