Team:St Andrews/Public-outreach


Get Involved!

Synthetic Biology is too exciting - we can't keep it to ourselves. We want you to get involved!

We had a stall at the Scottish National Science and Engineering Week and participated in our University's 600th anniversary event Food For Thought. In May, we delivered a well received TEDx talk. We're also active online on Twitter and Facebook, where we hold little online debates and give you a peek into synthetic biology research!

Fife Science Festival 2012 logo

National Science and Engineering Week exploded in Fife, Scotland with a regional "Science Discovery Day". Team St Andrews worked to convey the fundamental concepts of synthetic biology in new and exciting ways.

We had a number of exhibits, each catering to a different audience:

  • For the littlest kids, we ran an interactive "Codon Game", where children could "build a gene" from little paper parts.
  • We had interactive visualizations of DNA and Thermus aquaticus polymerase III, complete with 3D glasses, thanks to an impromptu collaboration with the Psychology department!
  • For those who like to see the things we work with, we had a display of of E. coli on plates, under a microscope and in broth. Children and adults alike were fascinated by our live experiment, extracting DNA from bananas using everyday kitchen equipment.

We took every chance to mingle with the crowd and to answer questions. The varying exhibits were helpful in starting discussions. Being able to refer to an actual colony of E. coli or the 3D structure of Taq pol III made these discussions more interesting.

TEDxUniversityofStAndrews logo

Team member Josi Buerger presented a lively talk "Spider Mutants and Bioterrorism - an Overview of Synthetic Biology as an Emerging Scientific Discipline" to an audience over eighty strong at TEDx University of St Andrews. She revealed the ground-breaking but occasionally controversial nature of synthetic biology and iGEM's role within it. Members of the audience showed surprise at the progress, discussions and possibilities that synthetic biology represents.

Josi recounts that the other talks and the audience were mainly in the field of the social sciences and that her talk had impressed and rattled the audience with its originality and raised questions they would otherwise have left unasked.

Here's the TEDx profile for the event at the main TED website.

Superhero or Supervillain?

Who would you be?

Who will you be?

Synthetic biology has already made a spider goat possible. How long will it be before Spider-Man steps out fiction and into reality?

Team St Andrews spoke to crowds at University of St Andrews 600th Anniversary Event Food for Thought on Sunday. The DNA extraction from bananas and a "create your own superhero" game were popular with the kids again. We took full advantage of having a stand next to the tent entrance: At least two of us were constantly engaged in conversation with visitors, giving mini-lectures explaining the basic principles of synthetic biology, DNA and iGEM and discussing the surrounding ethical and safety concerns.

The event's flyer

We also made these graphics to explain synthetic biology:

  • Demystifying plasmids

    Plasmids are like machine parts. Naturally, bacteria trade them around to disperse useful genes. This mechanism is useful if we deliberately put genes (and other useful stuff) into them.

  • Demystifying bacterial transformation

    And this is how you get a plasmid into a bacterium!

  • A member of our team, Veronica Rezelj, was invited to speak at the First Conference of Slovenian Young Researchers, Postgraduate and Undergraduate Students from Slovenia and Abroad. Her talk presented her experiences of studying in Scotland and taking part in iGEM to an audience of about 200 people. She was asked to give a radio interview for Radio Slovenija, and an interview for the Slovenian main newspaper Delo.

    Read the article

    Participants were invited to visit the Honorary sponsor of the conference, President of Slovenia, Dr. Danilo Türk, who emphasised international cooperation in science is crucial.

    Before the conference started on the 19th of July, Veronica was able to visit the Slovenian iGEM team, who have been very successful in the past. This was an informal and friendly meeting, where they got to know each other and shared experiences in the progress of the projects.

    Smiley face

    Ethics Forum with Morven Shearer

    In addition to engaging with members of the public, we were keen to discuss Synthetic Biology and its implications for the modern world with our colleagues at University. We hosted an "Ethics Forum" with Dr Morven Shearer from the School of Medicine and we advertised the event in the science departments beforehand. At 4pm on Wednesday 4th July, our chosen meeting room was filled and we discussed the difference between Synthetic Biology and Genetic Engineering; concerns that arise when the BBC broadcasts news of the first "spider-goat"; as well as what should be done to combat false and exaggerated claims about scientific research. Although many of the participants held contrasting views, even in response to the question of "What is Synthetic Biology?", some opinions were held by all. In particular we agreed, as scientists living in a world dominated by media headlines, the decisions we make when we share news of our work can be as influential as the decisions we make while carrying out our work.

    Multimedia Debate and Poster Campaign

    We facilitated two multimedia debates during our ten weeks of project work. Participants were invited to write their responses on one of the many posters displayed around campus and town; by tweeting us, or by writing a comment on our Facebook page. Our two debate topic were:

    • "What is Life? Is there one truly fundamental and fully comprehensive definition? How does the advent of emerging Scientific Discipline Synthetic Biology affect our viewpoint?

      Recently, Synthetic Biology made possible the creation of the world's first artificial cell ( Dr Craig Venter of the J Craig Venter Institute led his team to design and produce an entire genome - all genetic information governing the function of a cell - in the Lab. The resulting micro-organism had no parents. With such "advances" in this Scientific Discipline, how is our understanding of the concept of "life" affected? If new organisms can be created so readily, does the value we associate with mortality change?"

    • "Juan Enriquez says autism, synaesthesia, photographic memory, and extreme concentration ability are mutations that let their hosts deal with overwhelming amounts of information. In today's environment, that's what gives you a competitive edge. It's human evolution in action. Geeks are a new species. Geeks harbor some surprising powers. For the first time in the history of evolution, a species has flipped the tables. They routinely outdo the evolution that made them. They haven't killed it, but they could. There is no technical barrier for human genetic modification. They've levelled up.

      Hold on to your evolutionary fitnesses, ladies and gentlemen: "Homo evolutis" is coming and it's coming to compete. What do you hope for, from technology of the future?"

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    University of St Andrews, 2012.

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    This iGEM team has been funded by the MSD Scottish Life Sciences Fund. The opinions expressed by this iGEM team are those of the team members and do not necessarily represent those of Merck Sharp & Dohme Limited, nor its Affiliates.