Team:Athens/Public Engagement

Interlab Study

Education and Public Engagement

Athens Science Festival @Athens Technopolis, Greece

Our team participated in the annual Athens Science Festival on April 2018, an event organized by Sci-Co (Science Communication) that brings together students, teachers, professors and researchers, families, and everyone sharing one passion: science.

Students of all ages, from elementary school to university students, joined our discussions. Because of the variety of age groups and their respective biological background, our approach was more fundamental and our team focused on the basics of Biology. Among the discussions, the following were included:

  • Experimental demonstrations:
    • Microorganisms of everyday life: Sampling from everyday objects and places (cell phone, bus, toilet sink, sunglasses), we presented different types of bacterial and fungal colonies that are present in our daily routine.
    • Fluorescent Bacteria: Taking the demonstration one step further, we transformed E. coli by adding a plasmid containing the GFP (Green Fluorescent Protein) encoding gene. Shining a blacklight on our petri dish, everyone was able to observe the fluorescence. At the same time, we engaged in discussions concerning the origin of GFP and how it is possible for a bacterium to attain the fluorescence ability.
  • Discussion on the basics of life: Engaging elementary and high school students we discussed about life, living organisms, cells, bacteria, viruses, the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology and, finally, the ability to intervene and tinker with the genome of a selected organism.

After the aforementioned discussion, we asked the students to leave their impressions on paper, either by doodling or by writing biology-related words and phrases, based on what caught their attention. The result is presented below. Surprisingly enough, when asked to draw bacteria, and while having no blueprints on how to do so or relevant images, the students let their imagination run wild, taking inspiration from the preceding discussion.

High-School Presentations @Athens, Greece

Judging from our own high-school experience, we observed a lack of engagement with the cutting-edge technological advancements, Synthetic Biology and Biotechnology included. Thus, we sought to include high school students in the discussions.

We presented in three different high schools over a two-week period in May 2018, in an audience of 10th and 11th graders. Our presentation entitled “Synthetic Biology: Engineering Life”, span from an analogy between living cells and machines, to biotechnology and the principles of synthetic biology and, finally, to our own iGEM project.

At the same time, a questionnaire was handed out with two sections, pre- and post-presentation. This way, we wished to observe how our presentation had engaged the students, gave birth to new questions and planted the seed of interest towards Synthetic Biology. The students’ answers to the questionnaire can be found on our report. Some of the stunning comments we received are the following:

At the same time, a questionnaire was handed out with two sections, a pre-presentation section and an post-presentation. This way, we wished to observe how our presentation had engaged the students, gave birth to new questions and planted the seed of interest towards Synthetic Biology. The students’ answers to the questionnaire can be found on our report. Some of the stunning comments we received are the following:

“How much should everyday life applications of Synthetic Biology intervene with human nature?” - 11th grade student

“Is the consumer able to know which GM foods are healthy?” - 11th grade student

“Which is the impact on the one’s health if we do not know everything there is to know in Biology?” - 11th grade student

“After all, is genetic modification “good”? If yes, why is there so much propaganda against it.” - 10th grade student

“Will there be experiments on living organisms or human clones? Using the tools of Synthetic Biology is it not possible that there will be mistakes? How do we know that these experiments will not have a negative impact on the organism instead of a positive one?” - 10th grade student

Some of the comments we received surprised our team. Many of those fall under the emotional engagement category, as students tried to process the new information in a sentimental way, while other remarks fall under the cognitive engagement category, as they used prior knowledge and their own logic to analyze the facts. For more information on our observations and analysis of the students’ reactions to the presentation, please refer to our report.

SynBio Workshop: The Principles on Engineering Life @NTUA, Athens, Greece

Apart from our overall presence in our respective university communities and the discussions we held from time to time with classmates, we wanted to take the discussion one step further. Thus, with the encouragement of Dr. Kostas Vavitsas and in collaboration with iGEM Thessaloniki, we hosted a Synthetic Biology Workshop in our university, the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA).

The workshop addressed university students of various backgrounds and specialties, as we sought to demonstrate that Synthetic Biology is an interdisciplinary field. The response to our call for participation was beyond any expectations and, in the end out of more than 50 applicants, 34 university students joined us on July 5th in NTUA.

The workshop was divided in 4 main sections. In the first section, the keynote speakers section, Dr. Kostas Vavitsas of Queensland University in Australia and Prof. Fragiskos Kolissis of NTUA presented and discussed with the audience on the topics of Synthetic and Systems Biology.

The second session was dedicated to greek iGEM teams. iGEM Greece 2017, iGEM Thessaloniki 2018 and our own team, iGEM Athens 2018 presented their projects and answered the audience’s questions.

The third session was the scientific and technical session, where we presented the principles of synthetic biology, as presented below in the SynBio Engineering Cycle and the SynBio Checklist (found on our report). The main point of this presentation was to give insight on the way of thinking and the top-down problem solving approach that is adopted when dealing with a SynBio project. On the same session, the basic tools of synthetic biology were presented, a table of which is presented on our report.

In the final session, an idea we shared and developed with iGEM Thessaloniki, students were divided into 7 teams of 4-6 members, selected a problem and attempted to tackle it using the tools of synthetic biology. The teams were provided the following 4 problems that they could choose from, including relevant information that would help them approach the issue:

  • Design of a biosensor for Cow Milk Allergy Diagnosis - Diagnostics
  • Reforestation and Soil Remediation following forest fires - Environmental
  • Speeding-up Wound Healing - Therapeutics
  • Reduction of Hangover Symptoms - Nutrition & Quality of Life

The teams were given a total time of 2:30 hours to process the problem, come up with prospective solutions using the tools of Synthetic Biology and sum them up in a 5-minute presentation. Our team members as well as iGEM Thessaloniki’s members had a mentoring role in the aforementioned session, assisting the teams, discussing with them and offering their feedback.

Of course, the time given was not sufficient to fully grasp the essence of a problem, research all the relevant aspects and propose a well-defined solution. However, this was done intentionally, as our team’s main goal was to introduce the principles of synthetic biology and trigger students into engaging with SynBio.

The teams’ presentations exceeded everyone’s expectations. Some of the teams chose to tackle problems of their own interest, for example the development of an “Anti-Doping test for athletes” or the creation of a product that would “detect whether pesticides were used on fruit and vegetables.” At the same time, other teams amazed us with the approach of the problem, their ideas and their suggested solutions.

During the presentations, four specialists in the field of Biotechnology and Synthetic Biology joined us in order to provide the teams with feedback. Among them was Dr. Kostas Vavitsas, Prof. Georgios Skretas of the National Hellenic Research Foundation, and Dr. Pelli Foka and Dr. Timos Karamitros of the Hellenic Pasteur Institute. Along with the four specialists-judges, the mentors and the audience engaged in a discussion regarding the teams’ proposals and the tools of Synthetic Biology.

Apart from successfully organizing and hosting the SynBio Workshop, our team must, and is proud to, note the creation of two new iGEM Teams for the 2019 Competition. Both those teams were created by university students that participated in our workshop. Naturally, we are elated to observe that our initiative sparked students’ interest in Synthetic Biology and led them to create their own iGEM teams.

Click here to download our SynBio Workshop Guide, a manual that condensed all of our experience in organising a Synthetic Biology oriented workshop.

5th Systems and Synthetic Biology Summer School @Siena, Italy

Apart from educating high school students or engaging university students on the topic of Synthetic Biology, our team members sought out to educate themselves as well. Thus, two team members attended the 5th Systems and Synthetic Biology Summer School at Siena, Italy, and brought back with them their experience and the cutting-edge ongoing research. At the same time, our team had the chance to present its idea at the poster session and discuss with other participants on our project.

The fact that our team members participated in such an outstanding conference, one that managed to bring together the research elite on Synthetic and Systems Biology, gave our team the opportunity to broaden its horizons. This conference strengthens our efforts to engage our communities, inform the greek society on the cutting-edge technological advancements, educate students and the general public on synthetic biology, and even dissolve common misconceptions regarding this field. The knowledge that we gained can now be disseminated through our own presence in our respective communities.

Researcher’s Night @Hellenic Pasteur Institute, Athens, Greece

Among the events that were organized in Athens for the Researcher’s Night, was the Doctoral and Post-Doc Research Meeting, hosted by the Hellenic Pasteur Institute. Our team was there to present its work and engage in discussions with researchers and the general public.The emphasis of our presentation was given on the laboratory techniques that were implemented, and our project received heart-warming comments on its innovative nature.

Analyzing the Greek Reality

The next step on our path to make an actual impact on greek society was to analyze how immersed the greek society is in the biotechnological advancements and what are the misconceptions that disorientate the general public. We focused on the educational system of Greece, engaged in discussions with specialists and came up with proposals, discussed in our report along with the existing Synthetic Biology-related classes and programs.

Discussions with Specialists

Dr. Maria Dokopoulou

Institute of Educational Policy, Greece

The national Institute of Educational Policy, as a faculty of the Greek Ministry of Education, Research and Religious Affairs, plays a major role in shaping the national secondary education, both by determining the scientific content of the national curriculum as well as by putting into action effective educational policies.

Dr. Maria Dokopoulou, of the Biological section of the national Institute of Educational Policy, was by our team’s side throughout our iGEM journey, mentoring us from May up until September. More specifically, Dr. Dokopoulou guided us through the process of making an impactful presentation, suitable to high school audiences, as well as preparing questionnaires that are scientifically valid, with strong educational motives.

After the completion of our Education & Public Engagement Human Practices, our team discussed with Dr. Dokopoulou, analyzing the students’ answers on the questionnaires, their comments during the presentation and their overall stance towards our team. Dr. Dokopoulou’s insight on our analysis is included on the Discussion session later on.

Summing up our Human Practices, we further discussed the possibility of introducing Synthetic Biology to the high school curriculum, a move that we deemed to be daring. This belief stems from observing the insufficiency in prerequisite biological knowledge at the secondary education level, as well as from the fact that biology is an exponentially developing scientific field. Both those facts, led us to support that Synthetic Biology could only be approached as part of thematic seminars, presentations, school projects or teams, whose main goal is to immerse high school students into the biological and biotechnological advancements.

Prof. Kosmas Haralampidis

Biology Faculty, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece

Prof. Kosmas Haralampidis serves as assistant professor at the Biology faculty - Division of Botany at the University of Athens. Prof. Haralampidis specializes in molecular and developmental plant biology, and his research field is of great interest to our team. s. Our team met profesor Haralampidis in person, and discussed on the topics of Synthetic Biology and genetically modified organisms.

Regarding the introduction of Synthetic Biology to the tertiary education, Prof. Haralampidis pointed out two fundamental needs: Firstly, the need to reinforce undergraduate programs’ curriculum with classes that are prerequisites for Synthetic Biology. Among others, he mentioned molecular and developmental biology, microbiology and genetics. Secondly, perceiving Synthetic Biology as an interdisciplinary field, Prof. Haralampidis indicated the need of collaboration between scientists and research fields.

Thus, he suggested the creation of a Graduate Program at the Biology Faculty in collaboration with the School of Chemical Engineering or the School of Mechanical Engineering that would address biologists, engineers, informaticians and medical students. It was pointed out that such a program in the undergraduate level would be “heavy and biased” towards students, who must first grasp the fundamentals of biology and engineering and comprehend their principles in depth before moving on to the interdisciplinary field of Synthetic Biology. Moreover, Prof. Haralampidis mentioned that this graduate program would be of great interest to greek students, as many young scientists immigrate to other countrie (U.S., U.K., Germany, The Netherlands, France) in order to pursue their passion for synthetic biology.

We then discussed the evolution of genetically modified plants, the misconceptions and the boundaries of human intervention. GMOs and GMO foods were a recurring theme in our Human Practices, as we presume it to be a sensitive topic in the greek society. Prof. Haralampidis declared that “we [humanity] would be hypocrites if we were to assume that we could survive without genetically modified organisms,” referring both to GM foods and plants as well as to the production of pharmaceutical drugs. However, as he mentioned, scientists strive to propose novel, more environmentally and consumer-friendly solution, than the existing ones. And of course, detailed knowledge of the organisms and their genome will prove to be a strong asset in humanity’s journey to developing more robust and safe engineered biological systems.

Prof. Fragkiskos Kolissis

Professor Emeritus at the School of Chemical Engineering, NTUA, Greece - OMIC-Engine, Greece

Prof. Fragkiskos Kolissis, by our team’s side since the beginning, found our intention of concluding our actions into a report most promising, suggesting its publication on the OMIC-Engine webpage, Greece’s newly established infrastructure for Synthetic Biology. He also suggested the creation of a video that would explain synthetic biology, addressing high school students. The link for the video can be found on the next session.

Explaining Synthetic Biology - A Linguistic Approach

The following video was created as an introduction to Synthetic Biology for greek high school students. Thus, we adopted a simple approach to describe the principles of Synthetic Biology, by making an analogy with linguistics. Enjoy!

You can watch this video in Youtubewith English or German subtitles. The German subtitles are courtesy of iGEM Erlangen 2018 Team, as part of our teams' collaboration!