Education and Public Engagement
As a part of our outreach program for this year, we hosted a youth debate, in collaboration with the Emirates Youth Council, under the Minister of Youth, relating to synthetic biology. The Youth Debate is an initiative launched by the Ministry of Youth that brings together experts and young minds to discuss issues of extreme importance to the nation, region, and the world. During 45 minute segments, two teams formally debate a thoughtfully crafted argument, that is followed with a vote by a panel of judges and the audience to decide on a winning team. Quote from H.E. Shamma Al Mazrui, UAE Minister of State for Youth Affairs, on this event can be found here.
The team worked with the Youth Ministry from early June to conduct this event. Since it was the first ever English Youth Debates to be conducted, a lot of time, effort and thought was invested to craft this event. The iGEM team came up with five possible motions relating to Synthetic Biology and the Youth Debates management and the iGEM team discussed them in detail, before selecting our final motion. Since it had to be scientific, debatable and accessible to non science majors as well, the decision making process took a while. The proposed motions were:
1. DNA Databases: While firms like 23&me are famous for tracking your ancestry, they gain access to your DNA sequence- something that defines you. This information can be used to solve crimes, understand diseases and also to track every single person. Is building DNA databases the right way to keep track in the future or is it invading your privacy ?
2. Can synthetic biology solve world hunger?: While there is a huge need for food and limited space for agriculture, will synthetic biology help solve world hunger ? The labs can recreate all necessary climatic conditions and every nation could sustain its own population. Topics that we could discuss within this topic are possible policies, renewable energy, economic impact of this change for UAE and the world.
3. Can CRISPR feed the world?: CRISPR is a revolutionary and powerful tool that can easily edit genomes. CRISPR’s precision allows scientists to select for desired traits and insert them leaving out genes that make plants susceptible to disease and other undesirable factors. And so, using CRISPR in the food industry can increase the yield of crops in unfavorable conditions, and even possibly stop certain crops from becoming extinct.
4. Patentable genes and organism ownership: Patenting genes is a heated topic in bioethics. Some claim that it is unethical to patent genes as it gives life a commercial value. Others believe that life cannot be owned by anyone. However, companies that file for patents believe that novel genetically modified crops should be the protected as the property of the company. Whether anyone owns genetically modified organisms is still up to question.
5. Laboratory grown meat is the solution to future food security: Stem cells obtained from the animal are nurtured in the lab by keeping the external factors like the environment, temperature and humidity similar to the conditions inside the body. In short, you cheat the cells to believe that they are still in the animal and make them grow into tissues. The economic, social and policy impacts of this can be discussed.
Out of these topics, the second one was chosen and the Youth Debate held by the NYUAD iGEM team was on the topic :“ Is synthetic biology the solution to world hunger?”. This event was the first ever Youth Debate in English and was also the first to involve a scientific topic.
The event was held on the 10th of September at the NYUAD Campus. Her Excellency Mariam Al Mehairi, Minister of State for Food Security, Professor Rashid Ali, Research Assistant Professor, Khalifa Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology and Professor Alexis Gambis, Professor of Biology and Film and New Media, New York University Abu Dhabi served in the panel of judges. The affirmative team proposed that investing in synthetic biology was the solution to world hunger along with many other problems. The competitive team proposed that food policy programs and food management programs would be the quicker and practical solution to world hunger. Both teams consisted of a member of the iGEM team (Yejie Yun and Sion Hau), a non-science major student from NYUAD’s Debate Union (Matea Kocevska and Madhav Juneja) and a student from American University of Sharjah (Feraas Tayeh and Maryam AlMazrouei). This diversity in the teams made sure that the debate not only addressed the scientific perspective of things but also put it in context within the bigger picture. The ethics behind food policy programs, short term and long term benefits of artificial food production, the effects of both options in the local economy and the possible change in power dynamics between nations after introduction of synthetic food production were few topics addressed in the debate.
The debate served as a great introduction to the real life applications of synthetic biology and put into perspective what its influence will be in the UAE and around the world. H.E. Mariam also addressed the gathering and gave a short introduction to the current food programs she is working on.
NYUAD Youth Debate Media Mentions
"Youth debates will help limit global food shortage issue: Mariam Almheiri"
“The Youth Debate challenged me personally to think outside of my own biases as a Biology major, and to take into consideration existing food policy programs to support advances in synthetic biology to address the issue of world hunger.”
"The Youth Hub organizes 3 Youth Debates"
"The issue of biotechnology in agriculture proved to be a fertile subject for discussion at the third Emirati Youth Debate. Hosted at New York University (NYU) Abu Dhabi on Monday evening, the forum pitched two teams of students against each other to argue the relative merits of using the latest genetic technology to end world hunger."
"Organised by the Federal Youth Authority, the inaugural discussion in the Youth Debates programme – the region’s first youth-oriented debating platform – saw the attendance of H.E. Mariam Almheiri, Minister of State for Future Food Security, as special guest and judge"
"The Youth Hub organizes 3 Youth Debates"
STEM out of the box was a two day workshop by an NYU Abu Dhabi student interest called weSTEM. Members of the iGEM team collaborated with the organisers of the workshop by helping in the planning and execution of the workshop. The team also consisted of a civil engineering graduate to ensure expertise in the topic.
The workshop started with a presentation from Professor Matthew Karau about the design spaces available in NYUAD and the process of design thinking. Throughout this presentation, the importance of research, analysis and re-thinking was explained and the it served as the introduction to the process the six student teams were expected to follow in the two day workshop.
The task given to the teams was to design a house, with numerous restrictions. The restriction differed from team to team, to ensure that there was no unnecessary competition among them. The prompts of the house design ranged from home for refugee camps in Greece and Kenya, home for medical tourism to homes for lower income families of cooks or carpenters. The area for the house was also limited to 240 sq.feet.
This is the house modeled by the team of students whose prompt was to design homes for refugees in Greece. The homes were supposed to accommodate a fluctuating number of people and it was compulsory to have a cooking and bathing area.
House modeled by the team of students who were prompted to design a house for medical tourism. This meant keeping in mind the different medical conditions and limitations that accompany it. They also had to make sure the house created a friendly and pleasant environment for quick recovery.
The students started with brainstorming, list making and finalising requirements for the first day of the workshop.At the end of the first day, they presented their requirements and assumptions to the other teams and received criticism from their peers and NYUAD engineering students. On the second day, they continued with their research and were also taught how to use SweetHome3D, an outsourced software for basic interior design. Using this software, the students designed the house completely, ranging from floor plan to windows. On the end of the second day, the students presented their completed house designs and were awarded a certificate of participation.
During the summer, a student participant from the STEM out of the box workshop reached out to us with a few doubts about our work for iGEM and how Biology and Engineering was working together in it. We offered him an opportunity to shadow us for a day. During this time, he learnt about how the microfluidic chips were made, about the design process for the sample collection mechanism and also about the biology techniques used by us. The student also had the opportunity to join us for our design feedback meeting in which he had the opportunity to learn about how much effort goes into designing the smallest of things like a screw. Through this shadowing opportunity, both the student and the team learned a lot. While he learned about different techniques, tools and machines, the student’s curiosity and the questions asked allowed the team to look at things from a fresh perspective.
The student even reflected on his experience by writing this reflection piece:
New York University Abu Dhabi is the only iGEM team from the UAE. Given the fact that there are numerous high schools and universities in this country with a talented and diverse student body, our team decided to introduce them to iGEM,to ensure there is more representation of the UAE. The team chose six universities known for their active involvement in STEM and reached out to the Deans of Sciences/Engineering or Biotechnology, depending on the departments present in the universities of our interest. The Deans of the following universities were contacted:
-American University of Sharjah
-University of Sharjah
-American University of Ras Al Khaimah
We have introduced iGEM to them and are in the process of getting permission to host information sessions to interested students about this.
Engineering Conference with UAE University
The iGEM team of NYUAD is collaborating with the American Institute of Chemical Engineering Student Chapter and the Chemical Engineering Society of the UAE university to host a conference for Engineering students from all over the UAE. The conference will address a common overarching challenge in all fields of engineering and will work towards involving the students in discussing and coming up with solutions for the same. The conference will take place in the third week of November.
Intra-university Outreach and Education