Team:Toronto/Public Engagement

Education and Public Engagement


Our work in education and public engagement is aimed at intertwining society and our project, iGEM, and synthetic biology. These education and public engagement elements differ from those of outreach because they integrate the perceptions and concerns of society into our project which produces a relevant and responsible design. After meeting with our stakeholders, Kinross and the WWTP, we learned there was improvement needed in the education of our team, our project, iGEM, and synthetic biology. We developed internal and external programs, both aimed at informing iGEM members and society as well as encourage public and stakeholder interaction incorporation in future iGEM projects.

University research faculties are the primary vehicles for the execution of publicly sponsored research and have great influence on the nation’s science policies, the scientific agenda, the broad nature of the public’s research priorities and the public's understanding of how new knowledge will be deployed. The understanding of computational procedures, laboratory experiments, and ethics and public policy have a significant influence on the very character of the scientific enterprise. We produced innovative educational tools and public engagement activities, such as workshops, a SynBio Forum, and a public survey, to spark new scientific curiosity and establish a public dialogue about synthetic biology from the opinions of those outside the lab.



We understand the importance of teaching our iGEM members that with the rise of synthetic biology research and development, bioethics becomes more prominent. Bioethics examines and determines basic human values as well as the morality of developments in healthcare, life technology, medicine, and society’s responsibility for the health of its citizens.

The bioethics workshop provoked conversation and allowed participants to analyze the consequences of synthetic biology research, a core characteristic of policy and practices. This workshop encouraged participants to investigate the importance of integrating science and bioethics. Producing an adequate understanding of this integration will result in ethical scientific development and scholarly researchers. After this workshop, participants were able to critically analyze the development of science and biotechnology and its ramifications.

This workshop is important for iGEM members and students of all backgrounds and learning stages because it will provide the necessary means to formulate ethical, social and political assertions that positively progress synthetic biology rather than interfere with its growth.

Each class included an interactive activity, in the form of an informal debate, to engage participants to understand and evaluate the nature of the disagreements. Participants will be given a problem or scenario that requires them to formulate questions, analyze evidence, connect evidence to pre-existing theories, derive conclusions, consider all perspectives and reflect on their learning.

The bioethics workshop comprised of four sessions:

  • Agricultural Biotechnology -- Introduction to bioethics and its prevalence in synthetic biology, engineering, and medical sciences. At the end of this lesson, students will have demonstrated the ability to define bioethics and bioethical principles, ethical norms, moral objections and concerns in the synthetic biology field.
  • Gene Drive/Biomedical Ethics -- Alteration of one’s genetic inheritance via genetic engineering has controversial bioethical issues. Discussion of the utilitarian principle and new knowledge to eliminate disease.
  • Ethical Research Practices -- Research that involves human subjects promotes complex ethical, legal, social and political issues. In research ethics, the objective is to protect human participants, to ensure research is conducted in a way that promotes the interest of individuals or communities and to examine specific research activities for their ethical soundness. Discuss issues such as management of risk, protection of confidentiality and the process of informed consent.
  • Science Policies & Ethics -- Although there are laws in place, depending on the jurisdiction of engineering practices, this does not ensure ethical behaviour. Discuss and understand some interactions made between science and government in which political decisions are made. The government involvement in biotechnology is an important component of research and development.


The dry lab workshop was constructed for all iGEM members, from all disciplines, to engage in the computational and mathematical components of our project. The dry lab workshop comprised of five sessions:

  • Introduction to Mathematical Modelling and Single-Variable Optimization
  • Multivariable Optimization
  • Statistical Analysis
  • Dynamical Systems
  • Markov Chains and Stochastic Biological Models


The wet lab workshop coined “How to Design a GEM”, was intended to teach participants to develop an intuition for the design process used to create genetically-engineered microorganism (GEM). This workshop includes instructional and computational components with the focus on engineering bacteria to produce a pharmaceutical compound.

The goal of this workshop was for students to develop an understanding of safely creating a GMO and the computational skills of designing the genetic parts for a GMO’s production. The workshop comprised of 8 sessions:

  • Introduction to GEMs and the Design Process -- Introduction of GEMs and discuss examples of their real-world applications, such as agricultural, medical uses and uses for biomanufacturing. Examined when and how to approach a problem using GEMs and provide the (dis)advantages of using GEMs over other existing/developing technologies.
  • Benchling | Projects, Plasmids and Primers -- Explain the intuition behind using Benchling, a research platform where scientists can design, share and record experiments on one interface, to manage DNA sequence-based projects. Discuss how to create projects and what exists inside a project on Benchling, what plasmids (and linear DNA fragments) look like on the software and how to manipulate them. Furthermore, introduce how to design primers to amplify a specific region of DNA, along with overhang designs for downstream work-ups.
  • Hunting Down and Manipulating Genes I -- Discuss project explanation and teach the use of BLASTn, BLASTp, tBLASTn, along with the use of the NCBI database and other relevant databases. Select target compounds and begin a mini work session to find a source of DNA to amplify from HEAVY on the hunt down of genes.
  • Hunting Down and Manipulating Genes II -- Discuss how to put together the various genes for the pathway into a plasmid-based system on Benchling. Discuss the experimental design process to help create experiments.
  • Metabolic Engineering -- Discuss FBA, knock-out vs knock-down strategies, and gene editing technologies (lambda red and CRISPR)
  • Designing for Safety and Practice -- Introduce the concept of bioengineering safety and existing pressure to ensure synthetic biology is done safely. Discuss issues with GMO release into the environment and the existing data on this. Demonstrate safety mechanisms to prevent accidental release via genetic kill switches or non-biological forms of deactivation. Discuss how one would implement the genetic kill switches and the types that exist.
  • Design Work Session -- Time allocated for the completion of participants’ project. Instructor available for guidance.
  • Presentations and Feedback -- Participants present their experimental design and rationale.


To engage the minds of the public on the topic of synthetic biology and its environmental, legal, social, and ethical implications. As audience members entered, they completed a short questionnaire which illustrated their preconceived notions of synthetic biology and their opinion on our project. After the panel, participants were asked to conduct a post-panel survey to measure the efficacy of the information conveyed during the panel.

iGEM Team Member - Carla Hamady - 4th-year molecular genetics and genome biology double major. iGEM Head of Research & Design

iGEM Team Member - Adnan Sharif - 3rd year in a double major in Cell Bio and Chemistry. PnP Lead

DIYBio- Ranvir ‘Rana’ Chaudhri - has a masters of biochemical engineering and is the co-founder and vice president of DIYBio. He works on unique ideas and strives to push the boundaries of science and what it is capable of. He believes in do-it-yourself for whatever you’re into, the joys of self-directed learning, and friendly sharing of knowledge to better people’s lives. DIYBio Toronto is a non-profit organization that runs a biology and chemistry laboratory for startups and personal projects.

BioZone Graduate Student - Patrick Diep - a biochemist who completed his undergraduate at the University of Waterloo and is now transitioning to the Ph.D. stream at the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Toronto. His research concerns the bioengineering of microbes to remove and recover heavy metals from mine waste.

The SynBio Forum was conducted to measure public acceptance and assess the public’s concern for our project. It was our hope the audience will discover that synthetic biology is very complex and can be beneficial if practiced in a responsible way. Furthermore, I hope the public and the student body will learn about iGEM, iGEM Toronto, and our present work, achievements, and consideration for the environment and society.


To measure the information the audience had received we conducted a pre and post-panel questionnaire. Although the survey does not have statistical significance due to the small number of participants and the lack of randomization of the participants’ demographic. For example, 78.6% of participants were between the age of 19 and 30 years of age and 85.7% of participants earned a high school diploma or equal degree. This would suggest that despite efforts to engage more public attendance, most participants were young undergraduate students.

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In the pre-panel survey, 42.9% of people had complete concern for the quality of their household water. This number increased to 60.9% which suggested that our panel demonstrated there should be a concern for the quality of our water. It is important to note that in the pre-panel survey, we had a total of 28 responses and in the post-panel survey we had a result of 23 responses, due to early dismissal and error of survey submission. However, survey results were based on a percentage and therefore still significant for analyzing the significance of our panel.





Another way we measured information delivery was asking participants to rate on a scale of 1 to 5 on their knowledge of iGEM, genetic engineering, CRISPR, and E.Coli.





These results suggest our panel was successful in providing information on these topics.

Ethical considerations were an essential topic during our panel and surveys. We asked participants how they would feel about using genetically modified organisms to clean wastewater/water? (On a scale of 1-5, 1 = strongly against, 5 = strongly support). Ethical deliberation involves considering the impact our actions have on individuals, society, and the environment. Furthermore, we also asked participants to respond to the statement: “I believe the benefits of using genetically modified organisms to clean water outweigh the potential risks.” (On a scale of 1-5, 1 = strongly disagree, 5 = strongly agree).





At the end of the panel, participants left feeling more confident about the use of genetically modified organisms for bioremediation. We can make this assumption based on the increased number of people who selected “strongly support”. Furthermore, we can conclude that participants seemed more comfortable with the potential risks posed by the use of genetically modified organisms for bioremediation. More participants selected responses of 4 and 5 in the post-panel survey than in the pre-panel survey, indicating that they agree or strongly agree with the statement.





Inquiring about participants’ prior knowledge of what pollutants in water are most dangerous provided an understanding of what society believes is important for public health. Within this question, we included all relevant pollutants such as microplastics, pharmaceuticals, phosphorous, and heavy metals. In the pre-panel survey, 39.3% of participants argued that microplastics and heavy metals presented the most danger. Followed by pharmaceuticals (10.7%) and phosphorus (3.6%).





During our panel, we explained the applications of our project and the importance of the extraction of significant pollutants from water. Heavy metals remained the most dangerous pollutant. However, interestingly “do not know” increased from 3.6% to 8.7%, which would suggest some participants may have left the panel feeling uncertain about which pollutants were most dangerous. Based on these results, our project aimed to focus on the pollutants that were most relevant to the public.


The construction of a public survey had two specific goals: gauge public understanding of synthetic biology and attain public opinion regarding the filtration of water through the use of GMOs. The questions were written to test the hypothesis that people with low knowledge of synthetic biology will disapprove of it by targeting two unique pools of participants: first-year students and experienced synthetic biology graduates.

The questions were generated and influenced after reviewing articles which focused on public perception and the avoidance of survey bias. Experienced synthetic biology graduates were surveyed to acquire feedback from a population that is quite educated about the world of synthetic biology. The population unacquitted with this topic were also surveyed online. This resulted in data from the general public and 1st and 2nd-year students at the University of Toronto. The data from this survey is intended to provide insight to the questions and concerns society may have regarding synthetic biology and our project. These questions were then incorporated into our interview with experts on Syntalks, attaining the podcast’s purpose to educate the public.

SURVEY DISTRIBUTION: 36 respondents via Facebook. It is important to note that this method of distribution may have resulted in bias and statistical significance, due to the age of the population, similar education levels and the small sample size.

13 Description: Our hypothesis that people with low knowledge will disapprove synthetic biology was disproved, exemplified through 52 % of people who approved or strongly approved the ideas behind synthetic biology.
14 Description: The 36% of participants who needed more information to affirm their belief on this statement proves the essential need to educate the public on the benefits and risks of synthetic biology, not just its applications.
15 Description: 86 % of participants agree or strongly agree on the project's industrial and quotidian impact, and its integration. This is due to its potential to be non-invasive, non-toxic, cost-efficient and energy efficient. Concerns surrounding our design are purity, mutations, and needing more information to decide.