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Public Engagement


Keeping in line with the principles of synthetic biology, we aimed to make our research accessible to all members of society through the development of a range of educational resources. Many of the misconceptions and skepticism of synthetic biology are the result of a lack of public understanding of the field, and the inability of researchers and industries to “initiate open discussions”. Our initial outreach activities involved the delivery of lessons and workshops for summer school students, and we drew upon the feedback from these activities to plan further outreach events and resources designed for a larger target audience. Equally, these activities enabled us to assess the level of knowledge that the public have about synthetic biology, and discover their opinions about this emerging research field and, more specifically, our project.

The design of our educational programmes were guided by the synthetic biology educational aims outlined by Kuddell et al (2007):

  • Encourage students to precisely and carefully articulate their views
  • Raise controversial issues and encourage debate
  • Address the issues of security, safety and ownership
  • Be realistic about what synthetic biology has the potential to do

Summer Schools

An important and accessible platform for increasing public knowledge is to educate school children, so we ran workshops at four summer schools in Oxford:

  • Northwest Science Network Summer School (16-17 year old students interested in a broad range of science subjects)
  • UNIQ (16-17 year old state school students interested in biochemistry)
  • Pembroke Science Summer School (16-17 year old students interested in different science subjects)
  • Oxford Summer Courses (13-16 year old international students)

Our initial summer school classes were targeted at 16-17 year old students studying STEM subjects and with an interest in pursuing these subjects at university. Upon planning our educational resources for summer schools, we sought guidance from current teachers to ensure that the activities were tailored to the right level of understanding and delivered in an engaging format. We worked on developing activities that would appeal to the interests of a young audience, as well as making the activities as interactive as possible. We believed that it was important to ensure that the lessons involved low-resource activities that could be shared and used by teachers in schools, since this would enable the education of a wider cohort of school students. We also wanted to demonstrate that synthetic biology is an accessible field that all school students should feel able to pursue, and did not want to create artificial barriers by suggesting that synthetic biology could only be understood and accessed with specialist knowledge and equipment.

The structure of our lesson plan involved a brief introduction where we explained the principles of synthetic biology, followed by a carousel of activities where small groups moved around the room to participate in different stations. Each station had a task with a specific learning objective to ensure that the teaching and discussions were structured and focused. We believed it was important to demonstrate the range of tasks involved in synthetic biology and iGEM, including workshops explaining the structure of proteins, the use of Snapgene, modelling and the assessment of ethical issues associated with synthetic biology.

  • Station 1: Proteins and Pymol (20 minutes)
  • Station 2: Snapgene (20 minutes)
  • Station 3: Modelling (20 minutes)
  • Station 4: Ethics (20 minutes)

In line with Kuddell’s advice that all teaching about synthetic biology “should include sociological aspects”, we devoted an entire station to the discussion of the ethics of synthetic biology. We created a workshop containing examples of scenarios where genetic engineering has been used, and created a series of questions to prompt discussion and debate among the students. This workshop effectively addressed Kuddell’s four aims of synthetic biology teaching, since the relaxed, informal platform for debate enabled students to articulate their views on controversial scenarios and focus on a variety of issues, such as safety and possible risks imposed by the use of genetic engineering in each scenario.

The outline of our workshops on Proteins and Ethics can be viewed below.

Student satisfaction is an important factor determining the engagement, student understanding and success of teaching. We spoke to students and course directors after our teaching sessions to gain feedback, and acted upon this to improve our future lessons to different summer school programmes.

Feedback from initial lessons:

  • Some students felt that the content was difficult to understand if they didn't have an educational background in biology.
  • The first lesson overran quite significantly, and there wasn’t enough time for the students to complete the last station’s activity.
  • Some groups of students were very engaged in the Ethics station, but some groups remained reticent and difficult to engage.
  • The course director praised the carousel format of the lessons but stated that there could be “more space for informal conversations between summer school students and undergraduates."

Modifications in light of the feedback:

  • We adapted the workshop stations to include a more simple outline and introduction and we made sure we adapted our explanations to suit the level of knowledge of each individual in the group.
  • We reduced some of the content in the initial introductory activity to allow for more time to partake in group activities.
  • We created more specific questions to prompt quieter groups to start discussing specific aspects of the ethical issues created by each scenario.
  • We adapted one of our computer-based stations to a discussion-based station (see below).

In light of this feedback, we chose to change one of the computer-based activities (the Snapgene station) to a discussion-based activity that focused on problem solving. In line with ERASynBio’s recommendations that synthetic biology teaching should equip young people with “skills to operate effectively in multi-disciplinary teams”, we focused a station on problem solving involving a range of different STEM disciplines. Attendees of the summer schools had a range of scientific backgrounds and interests, so we encouraged conversations between individuals studying different subjects to develop young people’s ability to work in multi-disciplinary teams. This set up - where team members contribute knowledge on their own area of expertise - mimicked conversations that occur within multi-disciplinary teams, such as our own iGEM team, and provided young people to develop the “flexible thinking” required for a career in synthetic biology.

Science outreach activities targeting younger school children are necessary to encourage young people to gain an interest in science and consider a career in synthetic biology. We delivered a lesson on synthetic biology and its applications to 13-15 year old students attending summer schools in Oxford. The presentation for the lesson can be viewed here:

Online Educational Resources

In line with recommendations to develop “much-needed approachable synthetic biology web resources” in EraSynBio’s Strategic Vision 2014, we focused on generating online resources to act as accessible educational tools for school children and the public.

Oxplore is a digital platform designed by University of Oxford to encourage school students aged 11-18 to look beyond the normal school curriculum and engage in further research in a variety of fields. We created a podcast introducing the principles of genetic engineering and its common applications, the aim of our project and the ethical implications of gene editing. The podcast was promoted by various outreach organisations in Oxford, as well as on our own social media accounts. Our podcast can be listened to here:

Oxford Sparks is an online resource dedicated to advertising Oxford’s scientific research and encouraging young people to consider a career in STEM subjects. Their website contains a range of resources to support teachers to make science engaging for students, as well as showing an insight into the lives of researchers. We collaborated with Oxford Sparks to promote careers in synthetic biology to young people, including running a ‘iGEM Twitter Takeover’. During the Takeover, we tweeted photos of our work during the day, including the lab work, online research and outreach events. Through this, we hope to have promoted our research in an accessible way, as well as demonstrating the collaborative and diverse nature of scientific research.

In addition to the online educational resources aimed at school students, we engaged in work to promote our project and genetic engineering to adult audiences. The Oxford Scientist Blog is aimed at university students, staff and the general public to address current ideas in the science field as well as research that is being undertaken at the university. We wrote an article for the blog to explain our project and how genetically engineered probiotics may have applications in modern medicine. The blog article can be viewed: here

Additionally, we wrote an article that featured in Phenotype Journal - a science magazine produced by Oxford University Biochemical Society - to explain our project and our involvement in the UK iGEM Meet Up.

Long-term Education Plan

Based on our outreach work, it was clear that the general public has an insufficient understanding of genetic engineering and are therefore unable to make truly informed decisions about using genetically engineered medical products. Informed consent is a complex ethical concept that plays an important role in the research and clinical practice, describing the fact that a patient must be fully informed about the treatment and its associated benefits and risks before opting whether to take the medication. Since the information about both probiotics and genetic engineering is commonly misunderstood by the general public, the production and use of our treatment should be accompanied by a drive to educate the public about these issues.

We believe that assessing the problems associated with public acceptance of GM foods, where the introduction of GM foods into Europe “prompted major conflict”, is vital to the development of effective strategies to ensure public acceptance of genetically engineered probiotics. The European introduction of GM foods has been heavily criticised due to the failure of researchers, industry and public authorities to “address concerns prevailing among the general public”. In order to prevent a scenario like this, we recognise the value of engaging the wider public to understand their concerns and then to act upon these in an open and honest way. Our ultimate aim is to create an accessible platform to enable an open dialogue about concerns and solutions between researchers, industries, public authorities and the general public. Our public outreach enabled us to do this on a small scale; feedback gained from patients and the general public highlighted the huge concerns about the safety of a GM probiotic. In response to this, we modified our design to incorporate kill switches and performed additional safety analysis that was presented on our Wiki and at further public outreach events. Our openness about the safety measures we have taken in light of public feedback demonstrates how collaboration between researchers and the public can be achieved to fully meet the needs and address the concerns of the wider public.

The public outreach events that we organised were successful at engaging individuals and increasing their level of understanding of these issues, although a more sustained approach will be needed to educate all members of the public and healthcare professionals. We have created a Long-term Public Education Plan, which outlines a series of steps that will be required to enable the widespread education of the general public, clinicians and patients. The Long-term Public Education Plan provides further guidance for how to maintain an open platform for the public and clinicians to express their concerns about using GM probiotics, thus ensuring that public concerns are understood and acted upon throughout the future.

Our Long-term Education Plan can be viewed here:

Probiotic Information Leaflet

Having identified the lack of public knowledge about probiotics and genetic engineering, we developed an informative leaflet aimed at providing a basic level of understanding to the lay public. The leaflet, shown below, was distributed at our outreach events, such as at the New Scientist Live event and at our stall at Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

'Meet the Experts' Session at Oxford University Museum of Natural History

On 15th September, we hosted a stall at the Museum of Natural History, Oxford for their 'Meet the Experts' exhibition - an scientific outreach event aimed at families. We held the following interactive activities:

  • Drawing activity - in order to encourage young children to think about bacteria, we asked them to draw their artistic impression of the following questions: 'What do bacteria look like?' and 'What does a healthy intestine look like?'
  • Plasmid pong - we asked visitors to try and throw table tennis balls into plastic cups on a table to demonstrate the difficulty in bacterial transformation - underneath each cup was a fun fact about synthetic biology
  • Project video (see above)
  • Product design survey - we asked museum guests to vote on their preferred probiotic administration ideas via coloured stickers corresponding to their age group
  • We also distributed our probiotic information leaflets

New Scientist Live

In September, we teamed up with Imperial iGEM to host an exhibition at New Scientist Live at the ExCel centre, London. In addition to explaining our individual projects, we made an educational leaflet to improve understanding about synthetic biology, including common laboratory techniques, to distribute to the general public at the event. We also conducted a survey to gauge views on the safety and necessity of different types of genetic modification: somatic cell gene therapy, genetically modified probiotics, and germline cell gene therapy. Visitors were shown a sliding scale and asked to vote on the extent to which they agreed/disagreed with these techniques for therapeutic purposes. The results of our survey, grouped by age category, are as follows:

UK iGEM Meet-up in Oxford

In mid- July, Oxford and SynBio hosted the UK iGEM meetup. Teams travelled from as far as Edinburgh, Cardiff and Exeter to attend this two-day event that promoted collaboration, offered advice and gave an insight into what lies beyond the iGEM competition.

We heard from individuals closely associated with the iGEM foundation and synthetic biology groups in Oxford and attended talks on ‘Safety and Human Practices’, ‘iGEM troubleshooting’ and ‘Entrepreneurship beyond iGEM’. The aforementioned talk, describing the development of a synthetic biology start-up and entrepreneurship within iGEM made a particular impact on the trajectory of our project. Having heard from Dr. Ben Reeve, a previous iGEM participant who has now established his own biotechnology company, we decided that we would attempt the Entrepreneurship track alongside work on our therapeutic. We have now met with a researcher to discuss patent law and the steps required for drug development and approval in the US, EU and other potential markets. We also attended workshops that encouraged a better understanding of organisation and planning and an iGEM troubleshooting session which helped us to understand the tasks we had to accomplish in the time we had remaining. In addition, the principal supervisor of the Imperial 2016 team, Dr. Karen Polizzi, gave a talk on the roles of individuals within the team and how to best utilise the expertise offered by each member. Our team is made up of biochemists, engineers, a chemist, medic and biologist and the diversity in subjects offers different areas of specialism to contribute to the project.

We also had the opportunity to give a short introduction to the work we have been doing this summer and listen to presentations from other teams. This allowed us to identify common elements between our project and those of other teams, which, in turn, led to the opportunity for collaboration. We also saw the vast number of ways in which synthetic biology can be used to solve real world problems, for example, using RNAi to target crop pest such as aphids, a detection system for Listeria or the development of synthetic spiders’ silk in bacteria. This event was a good opportunity to meet with other UK based iGEM teams as well as chance to form important collaborations that we were able to work on over the rest of the summer.

Social Media

Reaching out to the public domain via social media platforms was an essential part to our project. Our regular posting included details of our project and our progress in the lab, as well as promoting both our online and lesson-style outreach work.The social media accounts were successful at engaging the public to complete surveys, as well as serving as a vital tool for communication and collaboration between different iGEM teams. We concentrated on promoting our team as being approachable and open to collaboration with the public and other research groups.