Team:UNAM Genomics Mexico/HumanPractices/Talk and surveys






We designed and conducted a talk about Synthetic Biology to fulfill out the second approach to our overall objective of meaningful communication of Science: to have a direct dialogue with the community. In order to maximize our goal, we decided that we were not following the model in which every concept is explained and detailed in order to arrive eventually to the idea of Synthetic Biology. To cover that, we already have the series of outreach videos. We also wanted to create an interactive environment, where the audience had an active role corresponding with us and telling us about what they had heard about the topic and what they expected from it. Our talk, more than a soliloquy from our part, has become an intimate dialogue between peers in that sense.

The talk was given to undergraduate students from the Renewable Energies Program of the UNAM, in Temixco, Morelos, on October 24th, 2012.


Renewable Energies Program's students

We decided that the content of this dialogue should be something else than a lecture-like activity. Similarly, we wanted that our interaction resulted in something departed from the deficit model regardless of how glamorous it could be. To achieve this, we adopted a historical approach to the topic, and this approach helped us debunking of the preconceptions about Synthetic Biology, Genetically Modified Organisms and Transgenic Organisms.

Our talk was divided in two sections. The first section focused on the way mankind has manipulated nature to satisfy its needs. There are three major moments that make up the first section of our talk:

The first moment focuses on how has mankind manipulated nature through domestication, hybridization, and the generation of new varieties of plants and animals to meet up humanity’s needs for food, working aid, and even companion and ludic activities.

The second moment of our talk focused on genetic manipulation as a way to improve the way the original modifications were carried. Here we explained the most representative examples of genetic modification in plants, animals and bacteria.

The last moment of our talk follows naturally as the paradigm shift enters to the new way of modifying living organisms: Synthetic Biology. Here we also talked about some representative projects and ideas that have been developed within the iGEM competition, including ours.

Here’s the Prezi presentation we used as visual aid to our talk:

The second section of our talk was the actual dialogue with the attendees of the talk. In this section, we addressed the beliefs and attitudes we identified through the analysis of the works of BiosintetizARTE. We spoke about the good and bad uses of technology, focusing on what they had heard and what they wanted to know. We also spoke about the common criticism raised about “playing god” with our work. We discussed and chatted about the value of nature, the role of natural selection, and how evolution has shaped our lives and the lives of the organisms around us.

Public Perception analysis.

As a way to get feedback from the attendees of our talks, and make better talks for future events, we conducted a survey on the in which we asked before the talk what have they heard about Synthetic Biology and Genetic Modifications in general, and then we asked if their perception about Synthetic Biology and Genetic Modification had changed after having the interaction with us and how would they explain how Synthetic Biology is to any person who couldn’t attend the talk.

The first question was asked to get two insights from the attendees of the talk: If they had heard anything about Synthetic Biology, and what had they heard. Answers to this question range from those who claim not knowing or having heard anything at all, and those who had heard about transgenic organisms and, we quote, "corporations that want to introduce pig's genes into apples to make their skin harder". The analysis of the answers given to us reflects a general bias toward mentioning only transgenic organisms as examples of Genetic Modification and Synthetic Biology. This finding is not gratuitous, and actually it is what we expected, since the preconception of genetically modified organisms tends to be skewed negatively in the general population. Debates about Genetic Modification in Mexico have centered in the use of transgenic corn for many years, and the popular imaginary is highly influenced by reaction groups that express their views for and against the technology, although they do it rarely in rational manner. Because we expected this preconception is why we designed the talk with the historical approach detailed above.

The other two questions mentioned above were asked to achieve the following insights: When asked about how they would explain Synthetic Biology to a person not attending the talk, we wanted to know how much would they explain the topic and if any subconscious expectation, fear or hope could be identified in the way they described it. The other question, if they had any change in their point of view about the topic, also served to gain insight into the hidden fears, hopes and hypes that might be difficult to get from a direct question.

Preeliminary Results

Our preliminary results show a main finding:
The change in public perception can be achieved through our method of science communication. For those who answered positively the first question about knowledge of Synthetic Biology, we found that before the talk they had the usual reservations about the technology discussed in our BiosintetizARTE analysis. This means that the perception is consistent among the population. Nevertheless, after the talk, we found many of our attendees had reduced their reservations to those we would have discussed with them, and the worries about pig-skinned apples had been buffered.

After the talk, we could identify that our approach helped in general to alleviate the concerns that the attendees had about the topic. Among the comments we received, we0d like to share the following:

you gave me a broader panorama, since I though it was more physically esthetic. But it isn't, it is synthetical because they are very small manipulable parts to have modifications in a situation that is beneficial for the population. Note: I liked it a lot. :) Thank you for giving us this talk.


Delivering the talk

Finally, these talks have given us the opportunity to sit down and talk with our peers about the issues they are worried about. This is the kind of correspondence we were talking about in our Human Practices home page. So far, the results have been positive. But the story can not and does not end at iGEM.


Make sure to visit the section of future work to find out the next steps in this project!