Team:NYU Abu Dhabi/Public Engagement

Education and Public Engagement

Over the course of one week, from September 16th till September 20th, four different schools sent an average of 30 students for a workshop organized and run by our team. The competition was advertised to the schools through their counsellors as well as through flyers describing our competition.

The flyer for this workshop series can be found here.

Given the high level of responses we got at 171 registrations, we had to select students on a first-come-first- serve basis as we could only accommodate 30 students per school due to the lab capacity available.

The workshop’s primary focus was biology and engineering. Every workshop ran from 9:45 am until 2 :00 pm. A summary of the breakdown of each day’s events is shown in Table 1. The workshop was kickstarted with an introduction to iGEM, the different tracks available, emphasizing the global scale of the competition as well as the fact that high school, graduate as well as undergraduate teams were eligible to participate. They were also introduced briefly to the field of synthetic biology.

During the introduction, the students were told that they will be contacted in a week with information about a competition for which they could form their own teams. They were not, however, informed of the specifics at the time so as to be fair to students whose workshops were later in the week.

The students were then introduced briefly to the field of synthetic biology, then split into two seperate groups, for the engineering and biology workshops.

On the Biology side, the concept of transformation as well as general terms such as plasmids, recombinant DNA, vector and gene regulation were explained to the students in a presentation form.

After that, they were taken to the lab, where they transformed E.Coli Dh5α with pGLO plasmid. They then plated their transformed plasmid on different plates as summarized in Table 2. As the incubation period is 16 hours, they were then shown the results on samples already prepared and incubated previously.

The protocol used can be found here.

On the Engineering side,the students were introduced to the arduino and basis of circuit making. Each team consisted of two to three members and each team was given a circuit kit which consisted of: Resistors, LEDs , breadboards, an arduino UNO board and wires.

They were walked through the polarity of the components and connections in the circuit. The first task was to teach the students how to code for a blinking LED. We taught them the circuit connections and explained each line of the code- to make sure that they will be able to make their own connections in the next half of the workshop. After this, we explained how a push button works and integrated that with an LED, to form a “push to light up” circuit.

After this time period, the students were allowed to play around with the circuitry and code, to build a system of LEDs with their own rhythm of blinking, for around 10 to 15 minutes.

Following this, we explained to them how such a simple circuit can be utilised and used in different ways- which was used as a transition to explain the design process. The students were introduced to the process of design thinking and the different iterations of it. We explained the different stages in detail and about how few stages are often repeated numerous times. This introduction was given to help students in understanding the broader picture of engineering and also to assist students interested in the high school competition to come up with their own ideas.

Each of the workshops ran for an hour, after which, the students were taken for lunch. The workshops were then conducted again so that the teams that had been in the biology workshop were now in the engineering one and vice versa. The purpose of splitting the students each day into 2 teams of 15, and running each workshop twice was to increase the amount of interaction we had with each student, and to attract their attention in a more efficient way that is likely to enhance their result in them benefiting more from the workshop and absorbing more of the information. Two members of the team were with each group of students at all times, leading the workshop, answering the students questions and addressing their concerns.

After the both sets of the parallel engineering and biology workshops were over, the students were taken on a tour around our campus, and invited to take a group photo before they were escorted to their school bus at 2:00 pm.

After the last workshop on Thursday September 20th, all students who participated in the workshop were sent the details and instructions for the competition. They were given one week to come up with a potential project idea for iGEM, and submit a 500 word abstract supported by cited references of their idea. Students were encouraged to team up with students from other schools as well in forming their teams for the competition should they wish to, in an effort to foster their collaborative skills and build their team skills especially with team mates they may not be as familiar with.

High School Competition

As a part of our education and public engagement, we are planning to conduct a High School Competition in early or mid November. The four schools: ADNOC, Al Hunain, Brighton School and GEMS Dubai American Academy, that participated in the High School workshop series were invited to join this competition.

On Thursday September 20th, all students who participated in our workshop series were sent the details and instructions for the competition. They were asked to form teams with two to four people and come up with a potential project idea for iGEM, and submit a 500 word abstract supported by cited references of their idea. Students were encouraged to team up with students from other schools as well in forming their teams for the competition should they wish to, in an effort to foster their collaborative skills and build their team skills especially with team mates they may not be as familiar with. This competition has been planned to take place in early or mid November, thus making sure the students have enough time for research and ideation. The students were given this prompt.

Few students submitted their project proposal in the early deadline and their project abstracts will receive feedback, giving them an advantage for the competition.

Here are some of the early proposals:

-Proposal 1

-Proposal 2

-Proposal 3

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

Emirates News Agency

"Youth debates will help limit global food shortage issue: Mariam Almheiri"

The Gazelle

“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.”

Eye Of Dubai

"The Youth Hub organizes 3 Youth Debates"

PR Pal

"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"

Emarat News

"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

-Khalifa University

-University of Sharjah

-Zayed University

-American University of Ras Al Khaimah

-UAE University

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

Our iGEM team devised a protocol and compiled tips and tricks on how to make an outstanding science sketch, allowing ad inspiring other teams across the world but also our own peers at NYUAD to create exciting science communication videos. Below are some examples of such Science Sketches that were made by our peers following the protocol that we created.

As part of our community outreach, we have successfully penned and published a special Feature in the school newspaper The Gazelle. The reason why we pursued the initiative is because we found that the iGEM competition and idea is not well known on campus as well as the Abu Dhabi community.

The first step we made to publicly engage on the social and journalistic level was to identify the newspaper and platform we wanted to reach out to. We picked The Gazelle due to its outreach on campus as well as in Abu Dhabi, as well as its social media platform. After the outreach to the newspaper, we agreed that the best approach would be to create a special Feature written by two of the team members familiar with all parts of the project and iGEM process.

To have the feature informative and unbiased, and thereby more reliable, we decided to look at both the good and the less good sides of iGEM at NYUAD. We first identified the people to interview that would bring deep and special perspectives of the iGEM process. We interviewed the PIs from current and previous years, instructors, and previous team leaders that have graduated. Throughout the interviews, we identified key instances such as personal stories of how people got involved with iGEM, their good and bad experiences, the lessons learned, and the advice for future and other iGEM teams. We also focused on the interviewee’s views on how iGEM contributes to NYUAD, and the UAE at large.

One of the feature’s main focuses was the interdisciplinarity required in bringing about a complex and fully refurbished iGEM project. We stressed the need for more designers, artists, social scientists, and others to join in the iGEM projects as we did not want it to come off as your any other science project and more as a project integrating and contributing to human practices.

Following the feature’s publication, we have received higher interest in our very own iGEM Student Interest Group (SIG) and in future team formation. We have also received more questions about iGEM and people expressing their positive impression of iGEM’s goals and our project. You can read the feature here.



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