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iGem SDSZ_China 2018
Outreach with a pharmaceutical factory in Xi’an
When our team was considering changing the industrial process of transferring chitin into chitosan, we found out that the statistics from the website was too old. Since improving the current situation and reduce pollution is our main goal, we decided to visit an actual factory to see whether our plan would work. And the reason we chose this pharmaceutical factory to visit is because of they stated on their website that they use chitin to transfer into chitosan to make different medicines.
After asking back and forth again, we got contact with a pharmaceutical factory that manufacturing chitosan by-products. We took an overnight train to a small and unknown city in xian province. We interviewed a researcher. After listening to our purpose, the staff explain that Chitosan is significantly soluble and bioactive, being widely used in medicine, cosmetics, food industry, water treatment and chemical industry as bacteriostat, coating agent, thickener, flocculant, and complexing agent, respectively, and so on. The current technology of chitosan production is the treatment with concentrated alkali, which has exposed many problems: deficiency over time and reactant, huge energy cost, instability of product quality (mainly of molecular mass distribution and degree of deacetylation), especially the destructive pollution of basic wastewater. The factory was using the traditional method to produce chitosan. However, the researcher told us that due to the waste liquid generated by the extraction method previously used by the factory, which caused a lot of pollution to the environment, the production has been stopped because the quality standard was not met in the environmental protection inspection by the government. Also, he emphasizes the risk of using concentrated alkali, while safety of employees always comes first.
This staff also told us that the chitin by-product was sold well in the past, the factory's income was considerable, but after the factory now has turned to the food processing production line, the profit is much lower than before, since there is no competitive advantage, because of the lack of special product features. After listening, I cannot help but sigh that China, as a country with rapid development in industrialization, can consider environmental protection as an important indicator while developing its economy and production, which reflect the country's high attention to ecological environment and the concept of sustainable development. In communication with staff, we also explained our thoughts about using chitin active enzymes classified from nature to produce chitosan. The factory technical personnel thought the idea is good, and the method will sure to reduce environmental pollution, but he reminded us the complexity of actual production process and the problem of high cost. I get to know that researchers need to think about many actual problems when they want to use certain method in manufacturing, which is very different from production process in the lab. All production and management should serve for the sustainable development of human ecological environment, rather than simply pursue the maximization of profits of the enterprise.
This means that we have considered the need of the society. we hope that our research can focus on the specific problem and make the product can deal with it. And the feedback pharmaceutical factory gave also guided our project in a clear way.
Visiting around in the factory
The factory was located in a small village near Xi’an, so it took us a bit of time to get there.
During the tour in the factory, we saw different machines. They are applications and actual practice of synthetic Biology. They have a whole set of machines to produce the medicine. We then realized how hard it was to make an industrialized process able to be applied to practical market. To achieve our goal, we still need to improve the efficiency and conduct multiple experiments to test the validity.
Interview the researcher
We meet the researcher there. He answered the concerns of us and save us some instructional advice. He told us that he was there to promote the research on some innovative new medicine. He also mentioned that they have another lab downtown.
We asked him about the current situation of the production of chitosan. To our surprise, we found out that they have already stopped producing chitosan. The researcher there told us that the reason for this is both the lack of original material, which is hard to get in Xi’an since it is not near the seaside, and the potential danger it has.
The current technology they use of chitosan production is the treatment with concentrated alkali. He mentioned some deficiencies of this method:
- Deficiency over time and reactant
- Huge energy cost
- Instability of product quality
- Pollution of basic waste water
- Danger during the operation
His words has actually proved our thoughts, since our goal is to change this way to a more environmental-friendly way.
After hearing about our iGEM project, he expressed great interest on our thought of synthesizing enzyme to transferring chitin into chitosan. He gave us some advice on maintaining the safety of the process as well as trying to improve the efficiency of our synthetic Biology method.
After the interview, we got substantiated proof of our assumption. We feel more confident in our project. Also, we realized how hard it is to change a process. We need to combine our result with the current situation to make it useful for the actual practice.
We are a team that wants to change the world, and it was necessary to expand our influence. We know how small a team of 15 people is on a planet of 7.4 billion people and how difficult it is to reach our goals. Even so, we are still willing to believe in the power of dreams and cohesion. Since dreams bring us together, it also can make our team move towards the future. But, when a student surprising about the relationship between environmental issues and bioengineering, we realized that even the students around us knew too little about the thing what we wanted to do. Therefore, we clearly understand that what we have to do is to influence the people around us now.
Since the students in our school are the people who has the closest relationship with us, we start from our school. After winning the opportunity to speak at the school's meeting, we have compiled a lot of information, including the introduction of our project, the goals of our team, the status of the development of bioengineering, etc., in order to make the students clearly understand the concept and significance of bioengineering. No one can predict the future and our classmates will be in all walks of life. They may be architects, civil servants, or teachers. And most of them may not access the field of bioengineering in their life. So what is the meaning of doing all these things? In my opinion, the answer is to show how we understand what is “life”. And this is one thing-no matter what the student does in the future-that everyone needs to explore finally. We believe that human beings existed because they were given life, and they will eventually use lives to survive in the future. As the result, we think that making students understand bioengineering is very important.
But this is not enough. After some discussion, we decide to go to primary school to promote our project. Elementary school is a stage of interest in all kinds of new things. Although I can not remember the specific scene, I know clearly that my interest in bioengineering began eight years ago because of the influence of my primary school teacher, the person who appreciates bioengineering. But unlike high school students, it is difficult to prepare a speech for a primary school student. We need to consider how to raise the interest of children and how to make them understand. We have prepared a large number of lobster specimens and some simulation models in advance, so that the students can observe, and they will curious: how do we could use the shrimp shells? We also use some common life phenomena to explain some proper nouns, such as using the white marks left on the inside of the flower pot to explain the salinization of the land. Our purpose is not only to tell them the advantages of bioengineering. We hope that we can leave an impression in their minds, that one way of thinking is that even the waste that can be seen everywhere can become a chance to change the world. We also want to tell them that no matter how powerful a person is, he has the right to change. Primary school students represent a future farther than us, we can let our influence continue.
A small butterfly flapping its wings and damaging the air over a certain place may cause a storm in a distant place. The research we spend a lot of time on is to hope that we can find out that our efforts in the future are really saving others. We are still moving towards our dreams.
"I often think about a question - how important is the insight to a child? It wasn't until I organized a trip to the Beijing No.2 experiment primary school to give a presentation about our iGEM project. I realized that a person’s vision during his or her childhood can affect his or her entire life.
When we entered a classroom of Grade 5 at Beijing No.2 experiment primary school, I found that many children were reading some popular science books about the universe and the nature around them. I realized that the book they have read are already far more complicated than other students at the same age with them. This will be much easier for me to talk about synthetic biology, I thought.
However, it turned out that the conversation was not easy at all. Their enthusiasm almost pushed me down. When I introduced them to the background knowledge of chitin, the students raised their hands and thought that I had raised one problem after another. One child said, “Why is the traditional process dealing with chitin leaving pollution? People are still willing to deal with it?” Another child asked me, “Since there is a environmental pollution, why not using landfill and wait for the degradation of nature?” I was surprised when I heard those questions, and it didn't feel like the questions could come out from the mouth of children at age 10. At the end of our speech, several children rushed over and asked about the connection between our subject and environmental protection, showing a strong curiosity. What surprised me the most is that some children even had the ability to make inferences based on the facts I offered. They took the initiative to think about the environmental protection documentary that they have seen on the Discovery Channel and asked me if our research could be extended to other areas of environmental protection. After the speech, I have been thinking about improvement of our experiment over and over again.
Now I understand that these children have educational resources far beyond the average level of China since childhood, and they have been protected by the education of their elders since childhood. This kind of education is not available to children who are poor and migrant, because most of their parents are junior high school graduates and have no education. This kind of vision will make outstanding students better and study hard, and students without this vision will tend to be ordinary. After a few years, most of the students in this elementary school will become China's elites. It is important that we give them inspirations by showing them what we are aiming for. With all these information and inspirations, they are surely going to be successful. I believe that the iGEM event encourages teams to go to primary schools and other places to promote projects is very important to drive their curiosity about scientific research because only when they have such an insight, will they be able to devote themselves to the research industry in the future, for China and the world. I also believe that under our leadership, more children will plant a seed of interest to the creatures when they are young, and grow up to make their own contributions to the society."
"Entering the room full of curiosity, we, the SDSZ-IGEM members, were going to give a speech in Second Experimental Elementary School about our project， which in order to solve the pollutions during traditional method of disposing chitin.
Connecting the computer with the projector, I nervously pointed at a picture of crabs on the screen, and asked the children: “What is this”? To my surprise, they answer the question loudly : “Crabs”, without hesitation or bashfulness. In their eyes, I saw the interest to the biology knowledge in front of them. I changed to another question: “When you finish eating the meat, how would you dispose the shell”? They were amused, whispering with their deck mate. With the developing of the speech, the questions we asked them were more and more complex. However, they reflected to a insistence to listen to our speech. One striking data followed another shocked their heart and their soul. In their eyes, I saw the veneration and silence. As children in Beijing, they enjoy the inexhaustible electricity, water, and food. They are hardly aware of the severe environmental pollution in China: water pollution, earth pollution, air pollution, white pollution, and so on. When we were playing the documentary about China environmental pollution, they stared at the screen with meditation. From their facial expression, I could found that they were largely touched.
We also showed an equipment in our laboratory—pipettor, and taught them how to use it to transfer a certain amount of water from one beaker to another. They were cautious and hesitating, but when they used this tool skillfully, we organized a tiny competition. Many pupils showed a great curiosity toward bioengineering and molecular biology.
After the speech, many students shook hands with me with reverence, saying that they really admire our work to deal with the environmental pollution. I was also astonished either that I never anticipated that they would be so deep moved. Although it was a common speech, I though it is a good opportunity to smash a misconception that China have a bright future of environment that can be meet in the near future. Our work are still not enough. However, encouraging one more student to have the curiosity to focus on the environmental problem, China has one more chance to realize a dream that the people would no longer wear mask in the haze, and our children can enjoy a better environment than what we own now."
While our experiment in the lab is still progressing, some of our team members went on a special trip to the city of Suzhou—me among them—to visit a genetic technology company that had nodded gladly upon our requisition of visiting. Them being a professional genetic engineering corporation and experienced in dealing with crustaceans, which is the primary biological source of our chitinase and chitin deacetylase sequence, we could not wait to hear the feedbacks and advices our project and us would receive.
On our way
Both on the way to the city, we did not waste a single moment reviewing the material we have prepared and practicing our presentation. During our very first few contacts with the company, they were rather pleased to see the introductory document about our project that we have sent them and has expressed their great expectations. Despite that it added some stress to each of us, we were more dedicated into preparing and rehearsing our presentations to make sure we achieve our best. Jumped out of the train by afternoon, we did not rest until the streets outside the hotel windows are lit by streetlights and pub music began to play. Sitting around a small coffee table in the empty hall, we indulged ourselves with notebook pages and PowerPoint slides, making time counts and rewriting the crossed-out part of the speech draft. I guess any presentation we deliver before the jamboree is a way to practice and refine both our oration and collaboration skills.
The next morning, we travelled across the city to the industrial innovation district where the company is located. Although had seen similar ones in where I live, this is the first time I walked inside it. On the both side of the streets named “Biology Road” or “Innovation Street”, the facets of buildings are decorated with posters of different biotech companies. As a group of biology-loving high schoolers walking among them, I couldn’t help but felt familiar and distant at the same time. Are those people in white jackets sitting behind those double-layered windows share the same mindset with us when holding up a pipet? If I push open a door will I hear the words we used in lab every day? But it is so distant in the same time—we are just taking our first step on this path, heaven knows how many years it is going to take us into one of those labs? —But I pulled myself from the train of thoughts, for the building we were visiting was just around the corner.
Consulting and discussion
After greeting us warmly, the manager offered to take us around to see their production line and labs. I recognized a great number of devices that resembles the ones we have back at school—Surely though, how can a thermocycler differ from another one dramatically? But I secretly felt more confident seeing that there is little difference—at least in terms of hardware—between our school lab and a professional one. Still, we have seen some incredible sights: An entire room filled with humming DNA synthesize machines; dozens of labs, each play a different role…I guess that is how industrialized genetic engineering look like. Who knows if one day a machine based on our design is going to appear somewhere like this!
There was not much time for us to enjoy the view of lab technology, though. Immediately after the tour we were led into a meeting room, where the chief researcher of the company awaited. We were seated, he did a brief self-introduction, and then it was up to us. We could not be readier, but standing in front of the core members of a company and introducing our work to them made me somewhat nervous. I tried to convey our dedication and passion in the project by covering as many details as possible yet in the same time worrying if all these “basic stuff” bore them.
At least they did not seem bored. Instead, they complimented us heartfully and told us how impressed they were by our designs. When we asked if they could offer us some professional insights on a few problems we were facing, the chief researcher answered with no hesitation. We were equally delighted to hear some solutions for the obstacles we were facing—such as alternative ways to test the activity of our target protein.
It was noon already when we left the company. For the first time since we have arrived at Suzhou we could relax a little, but none of us really had the mood for that—It was the time to spread the good news and pass what we have learnt today back to Beijing—back to where the ultimate goal of our visit is being conceived, making progress each day with the effort from the entire team.
During our school’s club festival in 2018, team members who are also in the iGEM club of our school conducted some simple biology experiments in campus to attract students to become interested in life science and synthetic biology.
We created three social media account, which are on Twitter, Facebook, and We-chat. We introduced our topic and put our experiment progress continuously on those social media to enlarge our social engagement. At the same time, we often posts some fun facts about synthetic biology in order to attract more people’s interests and to share our enjoyments with them. We usually got a lot of comments and questions about our project and biology on those platforms. We are really happy to see students’ enthusiasm towards synthetic biology, and we discusses issues with our followers a lot. This sure not only provides us an opportunity to express our idea, but also to learn from others and build up relationship with other teams.
We also made a documentary to record our progress as well as letting more people get to know about our project. We put introduction of chitin and chitosan and informed the audience of the importance of chitosan to medicine industry. We also included the photos and videos we took at the pharmaceutical factory that informed the current problem existed in the producing process. We believe the video can help the public know more about our project as well as the field of synthetic Biology.
In front of the whole class of 2019 in our high school, we introduced iGEM. Talking about how much we care about the current synthetic biology technology and how this competition has inspired us and thousands of other young people to devotee themselves in the progress of Bio-engineering, we received a big applaud on our passion. A lot of students expresses great interest in joining the iGEM team next year to make their dream come true.