Team:Queens Canada/Public Engagement

Community Engagement

Science Rendezvous

The Kingston Science Rendezvous is an annual event that showcases current research in science and engineering to the community. QGEM saw it as an excellent opportunity to connect with people from different ages and background, and we held a booth that presented some interesting science experiments and demonstrations. At the event we had three stations, the first demonstrated the process of kiwi DNA extraction with household materials. This was meant to establish the idea that science experiments can take place in everyday life and to encourage parents to explore science-related projects with their children at home. The second was a microscope station presenting a set of fruit fly abdomen cross section under the microscope. This was prepared by one of our volunteers and many were impressed by the anatomy of the fruit fly. We took the chance to explain the importance of fruit flies in genetic research and gave children an idea of the variety of work geneticists carry out. Both parents and children had shown great interest as fruit flies are commonly seen in households and yet it was rare for people to be able to see their organs and inner structures. Our microscope set up also featured other prepared slides containing different types of plankton. By allowing participants to use the microscope, they were able to gain a better appreciation for both how this technology works, as well as the microorganisms and microparticles that compose the world we live in. The third component of our booth was the use of a virtual reality (VR) headset with the app InCell VR. This application allowed participants to get an in-depth view of the inside of a human cell at the molecular level. Children were able to see cell components including the nucleus, mitochondria, and ribosomes during this interactive virtual experience. Although it was difficult to introduce complicated genetic concepts to young children for the first time, they were as fascinated and intrigued as we were!

More information:

1 / 3
Young children and their parents were both very intrigued by the fruit fly cross-sections prepared by our volunteer.
2 / 3
Children of all ages are lining up for the microscope station. Here, you can also see samples of kiwi DNA extractions on disply with handouts showing components of a cell.
3 / 3
Our outreach volunteer Ruben Warkentin was very delighted that children and parents enjoyed the Virtual Reality headset and it gave him the perfect opportunity to explain the components of a cell.

Canadian Undergraduate Technology Conference (CUTC)

QGEM was invited to attend and participate in the annual Maker’s Fair at the Canadian Undergraduate Technology Conference hosted by the University of Waterloo. CUTC is Canada's largest technology conference for undergraduate students established to bring together creators, designers, engineers, entrepreneurs, budding scientists and young visionaries across the country. There we were able to interact with and explain potential applications of synthetic biology to students in both high school and post-secondary. The team also highlighted problems tackled by past QGEM teams and briefly outlined recent years’ projects for a better understanding of the work that we do. As well, we were able to collaborate and share our ideas with other design teams from around Ontario.

Science Quest

Something our team has always been passionate about when it comes to synthetic biology is education. We believe that teaching children about the basics of synthetic biology from a young age can not only prepare them for future education but also allow them to explore a potential area of interest that they may want to pursue as a career one day. Although Science Rendezvous provided an opportunity to expose children of various ages to what our team does, and better explore the topic of DNA and cell biology, we were thrilled to partner up with Science Quest at Queen’s University for a more focused session. Science Quest is a not for profit science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) based program that operates at Queen’s University. Fortunately, we were able to lead a short mentorship program for a group of students in grades 6-8 to teach them all about DNA. Our lesson plan consisted of a short presentation outlining what DNA is, how is is transcribed into RNA, followed by the translation process to produce proteins. We started by doing a helix-building exercise to teach about the structure of DNA and how the base pairing between nucleotides works. To do this, we utilized licorice, toothpicks and mini coloured marshmallows for an informative (and yummy) experiment. The second part of our lesson plan was to teach the basics about how DNA codes for different amino acids. By providing them with both the DNA and mRNA sequences, as well as a codon chart and list of amino acids, we created a “DNA code breaker” game for them to play. By using the mRNA, they were able to determine which amino acid it was coding for, and then use the one-letter code to spell out our secret messages. We ended our session with some fun cell biology and DNA trivia.

1 / 3
A couple of young scientists showing off their sweet double-helix!
2 / 3
A thoroughly twisted and tasty treat.
3 / 3
Guest appearance from our Outreach Lead, Maddison!

SynBio Club

QGEM has always had a focus to provide a high-quality research experience to its students and others in the Queen’s University community. During the school semester, QGEM typically runs a SynBio Club to casually discuss novel ideas and showcase research being done at Queen’s by inviting professors to speak. We believe it is essential to create a better understanding of the diverse range of applications synthetic biology has in research, medicine, agriculture, and the environment to truly encompass and express its importance to society.

This year, we extended the club to the summer months, extending our invitation to those within the Kingston community. We created a new series of synthetic biology presentations, each followed by a structured open discussion period. Each hour-long session highlighted a different synthetic biology application and focused on a specific example from a recent scientific publication.

Our first SynBio Club summer 2018 event took place on June 29th and was devoted to better explaining the applications of genetic engineering in the field of medicine. Our Outreach Lead, Maddison, presented a paper that focused on research done at Cornell University. The research team did a study using genetically engineered Escherichia coli as commensal bacteria to prevent Vibrio cholerae virulence in mouse models. By transforming the bacteria to produce an autoinducer molecule, they were able to alter bacterial communication and decrease the amount of cholera present in the mouse systems. This was an excellent example of how synthetic biology applications can impact the field of medicine and even have the potential to serve as a basis for disease prevention and treatment plans. Following the presentation, everyone attending was invited to discuss their views on the application, its potential for use in human systems, possible ethical concerns and considerations that would need to be evaluated if this application was to move forward.

Interested in learning more? Here’s the paper we discussed:
Engineered bacterial communication prevents Vibrio cholerae virulence in an infant mouse model
Duan F and March JC. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2010; 107(25):11260-11264. doi:10.1073/pnas.1001294107

Our second SynBio Club event took place on July 25th and was focused on evaluating the use of synthetic biology in research applications and its effective use as a tool to further academic research. Specifically, the topic of optogenetics, a technique frequently used in neuroscience research, was explored. Optogenetics involves the introduction of genes for light-sensitive channels that allow for the specific and targeted activation of neurons. The meeting focused on a paper that involved the ability to create false memories in mice using this optogenetics approach. Following the presentation, the group discussed various topics surrounding this emerging field of research, which included use in humans, future applications and limitations of this technology, and possible ethical questions that may be raised when evaluating this tool.

Interested in learning more? Here’s the papers we discussed:
Millisecond-timescale, genetically targeted optical control of neural activity
E. S. Boyden, F. Zhang, E. Bamberg, G. Nagel, and K. Deisseroth, “Millisecond-timescale, genetically targeted optical control of neural activity,” Nat. Neurosci., vol. 8, no. 9, pp. 1263–1268, Sep. 2005. Creating a False Memory in the Hippocampus
S. Ramirez et al., “Creating a False Memory,” Science (80-. )., vol. 341, 2013.

Our third SynBio Club event took place on August 15th and was focused on the use of synthetic biology to create a live virus. As well, this SynBio debated the ethics and morals involved with using synthetic biology, and our responsibilities as scientists to communicate our research. This presentation focused on a paper that was able to use techniques, that we commonly use through QGEM, to synthesize a live and infectious horsepox virus using elements of modern vaccinia virus. The researchers in the paper divided the DNA into ten fragments with overlapping segments, and then ligated the sequences together. They activated the virus by using cells that were already infected with Shobe Fibroma virus (SFV), creating the necessary environment that was capable of assembling the virus fragments together. The research paper noted that this strain could be used as a vaccine against smallpox in humans. It showed less virulence and harmful effects in mice, with also providing vaccine protection. Following the presentation on the paper, the group discussed whether this was a safety concern for the public, the dangers behind the ability to create a live virus, and the accessibility of DNA for synthetic biology practices.

Interested in learning more? Here’s the papers we discussed:
Construction of an infectious horsepox virus vaccine from chemically synthesized DNA fragments. PLoS ONE 13(1): e0188453.
Noyce RS, Lederman S, Evans DH (2018) Construction of an infectious horsepox virus vaccine from chemically synthesized DNA fragments. PLoS ONE 13(1): e0188453.