Team:KCL UK/Public Engagement



Public Engagement


How much do we really need to know about antibiotic resistance? Is it really relevant to our everyday lives if we can’t understand half the information we’re reading? (What does methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus even mean?)

Our team believes that everyone from the age of eleven to seventy seven should have the same understanding of the medications they’re taking as the food that they eat- and by extension the medication going into the food that they eat. In many circles synthetic biology has been given a bad name- it’s time to show what we can do for good!

Bexley School Visit

We organised a symposium for the year eleven pupils of Bexley Grammar, to teach them a little about what iGEM is and does, but mostly to extend their knowledge and understanding beyond GCSE requirement of synthetic biology. We set up different stations, using everyday objects to explain the complex science behind genetic engineering. We built DNA out of sweets; explained cell biology with LegoTM, and separated strawberry DNA with mango juice and alcohol. The final debate we staged was easily the star of the show. The pupils took on the attitudes of different peoples affected by genetic engineering: farmers, doctors, and scientists both for an against GM products. It was a great exercise in concisely and clearly communicating your point and we could see first-hand exactly how much they had learned from us. We asked them to fill out a survey about their experience, and the responses were encouraging.

See the Results

Work In Kenya

"The reality of life in Kenya is, unsurprisingly, very different to life in the UK. The local wild life is much more exciting for starters, trading in sheep for lions and leopards. The cuisine is more exciting than “bangers and mash”. The healthcare expenditure per capita in Kenya is approximately £2700 less than in the UK (looking at statistics from 2014).

I realised that the situation was worse than I was expecting. The knowledge about [antibiotic resistance] is very poor. Most people don’t know which medications are classed as an antibiotic and that use must be controlled. The control of medication within the food industry is rudimental, which enables livestock companies to use major doses of antibiotics that results in excessive animal growth and more profit. The lack of sanitation and infrastructures with the addition of a poor correlation between diet and health are aspects that worsen the situation in the fight against antibiotic resistance..."

While I was living in the outskirts of Nairobi, I worked as a volunteer in an orphanage of 34 children, from aged six to seventeen. One of the eldest girls at the orphanage attended one of the best schools in Kenya, and she told me that it was common knowledge amongst the more privileged that in very poor areas of the country where people don’t have any money to buy antibiotics and other drugs, there are pharmaceutical companies distributing non-approved (or experimental) drugs. It was a horrifying realisation for me, that large companies take advantage of the lack of conditions and knowledge of these people.

Once I was living near the orphanage and working there every day, I decided to give some lectures about genetics and synthetic biology to the older kids. I organised evening lectures, after all the kids had finished school and were already at the house. I began with curriculum science- talking about DNA composition and its functions in our cell, and consequently in our lives. As interest piqued, we discussed some of the applications of synthetic biology and how we can now start editing DNA and the consequences that these can have in the future of humanity.

Teaching can be unforgiving, but teaching kids who are actually interested is incredibly rewarding. Many children in the UK and across Europe take their education for granted- whether that is because of cultural attitudes or the fact that education is a given right, I do not know. The children in the orphanage were, in contrast, committed to learning. They knew the hurdles they had to overcome, and persisted- which was inspiring.

Belvedere Wellbeing Centre Visit

As part of our Public Engagement activities, in September a few of our team visited the Belvedere Wellbeing Centre for elderly people in the London Borough of Bexley. We set out to open up the dialogue about antibiotic resistance to include more people in shaping synthetic biology, including groups not traditionally consulted. We thought it best to shed the conventional methods of teaching that we had relied on at Bexley Grammar School, and instead simply start a conversation about the elderly’s experiences of antibiotic administration and whether they see the use of antibiotics in animal farming as a factor in their shopping habits.