Singapore has set its sights on becoming a global powerhouse in synthetic biology. The government is pouring money into a new research programme, the national Synthetic Biology R&D programme, and is encouraging scientists to make synthetic microorganisms, or redesign natural ones, that can be used to produce food, electronics, medicine and energy.
Through educational events and public engagement, NUSGEM aimed to raise more awareness about synthetic biology, iGEM, and our project to the public focusing greatly on high school and university students. Although synthetic biology research and development is flourishing in Singapore, it is not being emphasized to students regardless of education level. Take a look at the following syllabus for an overview of the current pre-university curriculum for biology.
Even at the undergraduate level, there are limited opportunities for students to explore synthetic biology. A cursory search revealed only two modules on synthetic biology being offered by National University of Singapore, one being offered by Nanyang Technological University, and none being offered by the other universities in Singapore (Singapore Management University, Singapore University of Technology and Design).
Due to the lack of opportunities for involvement in synthetic biology with a formal educational platform, our team feels that it is important that students are exposed to the basics of synthetic biology early on, which may open up potential career options, and perhaps even bolster Singapore’s efforts in promoting synthetic biology research and development.
As students who have gone through all stages of the Singaporean education system, we feel that we are uniquely poised to design programmes that would be not only relatable, but also insightful for our fellow students. After much deliberation, consultation, and collaboration with current educators, we have developed a thoughtful and multi-pronged educational programme that will engage and inspire our fellow students, and open up their minds to a whole new world - that is synthetic biology.
LIFE HACKS! 2018
Life Hacks! 2018 was the first large-scale outreach event organised by NUSGEM. The event was held on 28th July at the National University of Singapore, Faculty of Engineering. Students and educators from over 15 different schools and institutions attended our event. Our event was conceived to help pre-university students learn more about what synthetic biology entailed, to help them make an informed decision on pursuing synthetic biology in the tertiary education and beyond.
Indeed, targeting this demographic proved to be high-impact as the concept of synthetic biology was not introduced to many of the participants at our event. Nevertheless, as synthetic biology is a growing and developing field, and as university students who felt that earlier exposure to synthetic biology would be beneficial, we highlighted the importance of equipping the students with sufficient knowledge before they entered the next stage of their education.
This event was conducted in collaboration with NUS Biomedical Engineering Club, in order to promote synthetic biology. We were also fortunate to have worked with Prof. Raye Yeow, the Chairperson of the Biomedical Engineering Society Student Chapter, who helped disseminate news of our event to all his affiliated student groups.
The Life Hacks! 2018 event consisted of two sections; firstly, engaging talks by speakers who were well-versed in the issues surrounding synthetic biology, and secondly, exciting hands-on activities to give the students a taster of the daily life of a synthetic biologist.
Our first speaker was Professor Poh Chueh Loo, an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Engineering, and our team’s Principal Investigator. He gave a primer to what synthetic biology is, before moving on to share about the career and academic prospects in synthetic biology. Our next speakers were Dr. Owen Schaefer, who introduced the group to relevant and critical issues in bioethics and synthetic biology, and Dr. Sonja Luz, who spoke about the applications of synthetic biology, especially in the environment and conservation aspects.
After lunch, four different activities were arranged for our participants: a brief lecture on gene circuit design, an activity on gene circuit design, a lab tour and short tour around our biomedical engineering department.
The lab tour introduced the participants to the BioMakerSpace in the Faculty of Engineering, more fondly referred to as “Home of NUS iGEM teams”. The BioMakerSpace is a newly-built and well-furnished laboratory for the iGEM students in our university to perform our wet-lab experiments for the competition.
Safety is a core value of our team, and indubitably, the safety of the our participants were our top priority during the event. To ensure a positive learning experience for our participants, all of them were provided with lab coats and safety goggles, and most notably, we started the tour with an informative safety briefing.
During the tour, we introduced to our participants the various equipment we used in our experiments, and explained how we used them. To complement our introductory session, we planned an exciting crossword challenge to test how much they understood. We were very heartened to find out from their post-survey feedback that they found the session extremely interesting and refreshing. Ms. Aishwarya Iyer, a student from NPS Singapore International School commented that “Life Hacks! sparked an interest in synthetic biology in me!” She also felt that “the entire event was a holistic experience of fun and learning through informative talks and engaging activities.”
As the gene circuit lies at the heart of synthetic biology, we wished to expose our participants to its basics by preparing a brief introductory session on gene circuit design. By drawing parallels to computer engineering, which inspired the abstraction hierarchy of synthetic biology, participants were made aware of the fundamental role that gene circuits play. They also learnt about the concept of simple logic gates, and how to construct them by assembling parts together.
Subsequently, the participants were given the opportunity to try their hand at designing gene circuits through a mini hands-on activity. Each group was tasked to piece paper cut-outs of parts together to build simple systems. An example of a task went: “Design a gene circuit such that the cell produces CFP when lactose is present, and SK2 when lactose is absent.”
While initially hesitant and unsure, the participants gradually eased into the activity, guided along by the friendly facilitators, who ensured that all the participants were involved and addressed their many queries. One heartening observation by our facilitators - participants who were quicker at getting the hang of designing their gene circuits extended their help to their peers, even those from other groups. If this is any representation of the future of synthetic biologists, the field is indeed in good hands!
Mr. Justin Soh, a student from Singapore Polytechnic, felt that Life Hacks! 2018 “[gave a] simple overview of what synthetic biology is about at its core but provides enough depth for attendees to appreciate the value of synthetic biology”. He further added – “the invited guests were not synthetic biologists themselves, but people who complemented the work of synthetic biologists. This helped me gain more insight on the impact of the work we do and how it affects the world in a larger perspective, and would greatly help inspire the future generations of biologists”.
Our event would not have been possible without our sponsors’ generous support - many thanks goes out to Axil Scientific, Arbor Bioscience, and Singer Instruments. Our sponsors offer high quality products and services everyday to help researchers in the life science with their research, in terms of lab reagents, consumables, gene and DNA sequencing services, and high quality instruments.
No event is complete without an in-depth analysis of our participants’ responses. For NUSGEM to understand the how Life Hacks! impacted our participants, especially regarding their perspectives on synthetic biology, our team conducted a pre-event and post-event survey.
A total of 58 participants (10 males and 48 females) responded to our pre-event survey.
A total of 56 participants (8 males and 48 females) responded to our post-event survey.
How much do you know about synthetic biology?
I don’t know anything about synthetic biology at all.
I have heard of synthetic biology, but I don’t really know what it is about.
I know somewhat what synthetic biology does, but I will need to clarify some questions.
I know sufficiently about synthetic biology to inform others about what I have learned today and to make decisions on my course of study and career in future.
The pre-event survey results indicate that most of our participants were unclear what synthetic biology is and what it does. Hearteningly, after Life Hacks!, the answers saw a significant shift toward options favouring knowledge of synthetic biology and its many applications, and even career and research options featuring synthetic biology. Indeed, the goal of Life Hacks! was to increase awareness of synthetic biology and perhaps nudge students towards considering a potential career in synthetic biology; and the results highlights the success of the event!
How agreeable are you to pursuing synthetic biology and genetic engineering as your course of study and career in the future?
Not agreeable at all
Cannot make a decision
The pre-event survey results revealed a general hesitancy towards pursuing further studies and considering career prospects in the fields of genetic engineering and synthetic biology, with majority of responses falling under the “cannot make a decision” and “maybe” options. Unsurprisingly, this could be, in part, explained by the lack of knowledge about the aforementioned fields and their applications. After our talks explaining the various prospects and issues surrounding the life of a synthetic biologist, the participants were clearly less indecisive about considering a career and further education in synthetic biology. While it is exciting to see that many participants were more inspired to pursue tertiary education and careers in synthetic biology, it is equally important to note that a sizeable number of students have also opted otherwise – suggesting these students thought deeply about the challenges and issues faced by the field.
Analysis of our pre-event and post-event survey results conclude the success of our event - to introduce and educate pre-university students about synthetic biology, and to encourage them towards critically considering a career in synthetic biology.
Residential College Teas (RC Teas)
RC Teas were organized to introduce synthetic biology and our project to our fellow students at our university. We organized two different student teas - one at the Tembusu Residential College, and the other at Ridge View Residential College. We limited the attendance of these student teas to help facilitate deeper and intimate discussions.
TEMBUSU RESIDENTIAL COLLEGE TEA
The tea session Tembusu College focused on “Women in Synthetic Biology”. To grace our event was Adjunct Associate Professor Lisa Ng, a renowned virologist and a PI at the Singapore Immunology Network, she is well-known for working with viruses endemic in the tropics. Most notably, she was also the first Singaporean and first woman to be awarded the illustrious ASEAN “International Young Scientist and Technologist Award” in 2008.
During the talk, she shared with us her journey starting off as a mere undergraduate to her current status as a principal investigator. This inspiring tale provoked many questions from the participants, several participants even used this opportunity to seek career-related advice. Hearteningly, the participants were voracious and keenly participated in discussions with Dr. Lisa, prompting her to share her many stories, and even listen to our experiences.
I felt inspired and empowered by her stories and advice. There was a great deal of interesting debate as well - Participant
At the end of the event, Dr. Ng expressed how impressed she was with our event.
It was a different experience for me, I was able to mingle with everyone rather than just present myself -A/Prof Lisa Ng
Overall, Dr. Ng and the attendees found the event extremely fruitful - through open discourse, this event helped participants to better understand the challenges faced by women in synthetic biology, and perhaps even STEM-related fields in general. A few participants even expressed interest in participating in similar projects in the future!
RIDGE VIEW RESIDENTIAL COLLEGE TEA
At the Ridge View Residential College Tea, we worked closely with the faculty at the residential college, Mr. Lim Cheng Puay, to introduce our project as part of a series lectures on the environment the college was giving. Similar to the Tembusu College Tea, we had around ten participants which facilitated a smooth discussion. Participants were extremely keen to learn more about the motivation for project, our progress, and what iGEM entitles.
I really liked this initiative as it allowed people to understand how synthetic biology can truly be used to solve a problem. - Participant
To intrigue the audience's’ interest in iGEM, we encouraged everyone on the team to be open in sharing both their experiences and struggles.
Although our audience comprised students from different majors, they felt that they could understand what we were saying and what our project was all about.
Through this event, we believe we have helped students realise the power of synthetic biology, whilst simultaneously educating them about the harmful and pollutive effects caused by the textile industry and how synthetic biology was uniquely poised to make a difference.
The Q&A and feedback session greatly helped to learn more about the project and share our opinion regarding it. - Participant
LSM3246 SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY PRESENTATION
On the 27th of August, NUSGEM had the unique opportunity to participate in a lecture on synthetic biology (NUS LSM3246, for those who were wondering), co-ordinated by Dr. Matthew Chang, the director of SynCTI. To start off the session, we gave a brief introduction to what iGEM is and what it entails. As we felt that the exposure to synthetic biology that iGEM provided was invaluable and unparalleled, we wanted to pique the interests of current synthetic biology students, and encourage them to join next year’s iGEM team.
We introduced the premise of our project by explaining the long-term consequences resulting from unregulated pollution caused by the production of synthetic dyes in the fashion industry, we then explicated more about our novel platform for biomanufacturing. It being a lecture on synthetic biology, the crowd was well-versed in the content matter, allowing our coverage to go in depth into our gene circuits, reaction pathways, and mechanisms.
The session was extremely engaging as the students were keen to learn more, and the applications of biomanufacturing in our project supplemented their curriculum healthily. The students’ understanding of synthetic biology was also enhanced - through our presentation, in particular the sections on human practices and modelling, they were more aware of the practical applications and consideration of synthetic biology endeavours.
The session was extremely insightful and grew my love for synthetic biology even more. This session has definitely swayed me towards participating in next year’s iGEM team - Participant
After our presentation, the students asked thought-provoking questions and raised interesting suggestions, which made us think critically about our approach to our project, and re-affirmed certain components of our project.
At the end of the session, we gathered feedback from the participants. Most of the students were impressed with our project and were extremely keen on participating in iGEM to expound upon their current understanding of synthetic biology.
Overall, it was a very interactive session; not only could we share more about our project and iGEM, we also increased the awareness of the environmental issues arising from the fashion industry. We also strengthened our expertise in our project from the process of the students questioning our work, and considered the many recommendations provided by the students.
Our project used social media as a longitudinal form of educational and public engagement - whilst we had several exciting events scattered throughout our project timeline, we used our social media accounts (namely Instagram) to constantly share with our followers more about what we have learned about synthetic biology in our Human Practices interviews, and to engage our followers in amusing quizzes that pique their interest in synthetic biology.
With over 30 posts and 250 followers, we used our Instagram account to share with our followers exciting developments in our wet-lab experiments, the pearls of wisdom we gleaned from our Human Practices interviews, and important details of our education and engagement events.
One of our posts depicted a photo of a gel electrophoresis process in progress - we then shared with our followers about the purpose of this experiment - which was for us to verify the sizes of our DNA samples after performing a PCR reaction on the samples. Through this one post, our followers would be able to understand the processes going on a synthetic biology laboratory, and the importance of having good laboratory techniques in synthetic biology. Hopefully, they would be better to appreciate the values of scientific rigour and excellence as applied to the daily life of a synthetic biologist too!
Another one of our posts was with one of our Human Practices interviewees - Ms Angelene Wong. We shared with our followers more about what we had learnt about the fashion industry from Ms Angelene Wong; for example, the interconnectedness of fashion and technology - how technology could be used to create accessible fashion, such as synthetic prosthetics, and how the colours used in clothing were invariably affected by local history and politics. Using the Instagram story function, we were also able to field questions from our followers who had burning questions about fashion, culture, and technology. Just as we learned more about how synthetic biology should seek to complement fashion, we were eager to share it with our followers, and engage them in our discussions as well!
HEAR OUR STORY
We’re using synthetic biology to change the way the world thinks and functions.
We’re a little disruptive, dangerous and maybe a tad too bold. But the world needs some shaking up every now and then, and we think we’re just the right people for that.
Together we’re going to engineer biology and create something awesome.