Team:HKUST-Hong Kong/Interview


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Team:HKUST-Hong Kong -



Last year, HKUST iGEM team conducted a survey that is subjected to people’s perception of synthetic biology and the key factors that influence people’s impression about this technology. However, the result shows that people in HK do not have much understanding of synthetic biology and that people may have certain stereotype towards this new technology. Because of this kind of result, it is hard to draw anything constructive to help human civilization to address the issue of biotechnology. Therefore, it is necessary to educate people about synthetic biology before the survey. Rather than public education – during which people may have only superficial understanding and not enough attentiveness to the topic, we decide to conduct several interviews. Due to the flexibility of the interview, we can present the knowledge of synthetic biology to the interviewees and raise more questions related to his/her personal concerns.

Purpose of our interview

  1. To get a deep understanding of people’s attitudes over synthetic biology. Considering that if the questionnaire of the survey does not include any possible responses, the lack of knowledge of synthetic biology and individual difference may make the result of the survey less valuable, we intend to use the flexibility of the interview to overcome this issue and get deep understanding of people’s attitudes. The flexibility of the interview mainly concerns with the fact that we can present information to the audience if necessary and make variations to our questions to get deeper insight.
  2. To be a foundation for future interviews. As far as we are concerned, our team is the first one using the method of interview to collect people’s response and attitudes towards synthetic biology. We may encounter numerous obstacles and need to overcome them. Yet, after successfully conducting our interviews, we hope that our experience can be a foundation to propagate this innovative means.
  3. To be a foundation for future surveys. As stated above, our interview can reach a deeper level of understanding of people’s attitudes towards synthetic biology. Thus, we can collect abundant responses which reflect people’s attitudes. This collection of responses may broaden the range of questions of the survey, which can eventually be comprehensive enough to reflect people’s true attitudes.


  1. About the interviewee: we found four interviewees in different fields that may have direct or indirect influence over the field of synthetic biology: one politician, one journalist, one university student and one secondary school student.
  2. About the questions in the interview: there are two features about the questions we ask: (1) bi-directional: we not only ask questions and see their response, but also present some information about synthetic biology to them if they do not have a clear picture of this technology; (2) the questions for different individuals achieve a balance of consistency and inconsistency: we ask similar questions and follow a similar outline, but because of the individuals’ variations and their distinctive response, we prepare and even improvise distinctive questions for different individuals.

Four interviews

  1. The Politician.
  2.   The politician we interviewed – Mr. Shum – is a local community officer of the Democratic Party in Hong Kong. Before the interview, he had little knowledge in synthetic biology.
    In order to let Mr. Shum prepare for the interview, we initially asked him about his perspectives on technology in general. Upon hearing the question, he praised the convenience technology brings to the society. Then we move stepwise towards synthetic biology by first mentioning his perspectives on Genetically Modified food. In order to get deeper insight, we offered him a virtual situation that a group of people complained to you that Genetically Modified food is unethical, because humans cannot play God, and asked for his response. And his attitude towards Genetically Modified food is that even if there may be some people claiming the play-God side of the issue, he believed that the inclination of the majority and the development of the society are the determinants.
    Later, a brief introduction of synthetic biology and our project is presented to Mr. Shum, to which he did not evaluate this technology by the distinctive concepts synthetic biology has, but he emphasized its influence on the society and on people. Comprehending his focus of the issue, we provided him with several imaginary situations to ask for his response. For example, we asked him “The science world has its own criteria related to animal rights protection, but it may not be enough for some animal right advocates. If we conduct animal experiments for the synthetic bacteria we made, and some animal lovers protest these experiments, what will you do?” and “Suppose that after our medication bacteria have passed all the safety tests and animal experiments, some patients register for the human trial, but the result yields negative. If one of the patients complain to you and accuse this technology, what will you do?” Mr. Shum gave us a deep insight into a local politician. He held the view that he would be a responsible listener for people’s complaints, but the decision addressed on the technology should be guided by the majority opinions of people. He said that he would not interfere with the development of the technology by his personal views.

  3. The Journalist.
  4.   The journalist we interviewed – Ms. Leung – is a journalist for a local magazine in Hong Kong. She has heard synthetic biology, because of the nature of her work.
    Since Ms. Leung has some ideas of synthetic biology, we directly adopt the approach to ask her how she knows this technology. She recalled two examples, which she learned during her work. Considering that her work related to public education, we wondered whether media she was familiar with nowadays promoted synthetic biology. Her answer was that this kind of material was not the mainstream in media, but public still had some interests in learning this technology. Developed from this topic, a question was put forward whether public should know more about synthetic biology. Her response was positive, because she thought that understanding was crucial, especially for the collapse of false or misleading advertisement.
    Later, we elucidated our project to Ms. Leung. To our surprise, her first response was not to evaluate our project, but to give us advice on how to propagate our project. She suggested us using brief and concise methods like animation to promote our project and synthetic biology. Afterwards, she expressed her personal perspectives of the relationship between synthetic biology and media. She said that the main problem for promoting technology in Hong Kong was the lack of platforms. And the attractiveness of the propagation and the applicability to multitudes were also factors that affected this sort of propagation. She further illustrated that media were more open-mind to new technology because they learned more. However, problems still existed; immoral merchants might mislead people for profits, or normal people would exaggerate certain technology.
    After hearing all the valuable perspectives Ms. Leung gave us, at the very last, we let her to imagine the prospect of synthetic biology. She speculated that the future would be bright and the public actually wanted to learn about it. Nevertheless, controversies, say patent of the scientists, animal tests, ethical problems, might hinder its progress.

  5. The University Student.
  6.   The university student - Mr. Au – has just finished his freshman year in the university. He used to be interested in biology and life science. Yet, he was a little bit confused about the definition of synthetic biology.
    Like the case for the politician, we initiate the interview by asking him about his attitudes towards technology and some general questions related to technology, to which he acknowledged the significance of technology and he shared with us some thoughts over the public knowledge level of technology in Hong Kong and over his peers’ interests in technology.
    After this warm-up, Mr. Au was asked his perspectives on genetic engineering, which is topic he learned in high school. While he expressed his astonishment towards the fanciness of this technology, he still found it was frightening. His concerns mainly based on the knowledge he learned in high school. Mr. Au expressed that gene modification may introduce uncertainties in the eco-system. Due to this uncertainty, he thought that it could be a potential threat.
    Completing the questions about genetic engineering, we went on to explain the exact definition and concepts of synthetic biology to him, and asked his immediate thoughts upon this technology. He expressed his fear that the technology may go extreme and can be dangerous. Then, the facts of the pros and cons of synthetic biology were given to him. He acknowledged that with this technology human beings can do more things with less resources. However, he regarded the eco-system and biological experiments so complicated that it was easy to go wrong and that a little mistake could lead to great risks. In order to evaluate the levels of fears he had in synthetic biology, we asked him to compare the widespread of synthetic biology with the widespread of computer technology. He stated that even if computers were infected by computer virus, it could be shut down, but for human beings, irreversible things could happen.
    At the very last, we explain our project to him, and asked for his perspectives on animal tests. Mr. Au personally disliked this kind of test, but he would not object it because without it, human beings need take the risks.

  7. Secondary School Student.
  8.   The secondary school student we interviewed – Mr. Siu – has just finished his year 1 in his high school. In school, biology, chemistry and physics are his choices of his electives. Despite his interests in science, he still has not learned too much about science subjects.
    Similar to other three interviews, we started our conversation by asking him some general questions about technology, such as “do you welcome the latest technology”, “will you talk about technologies with your friends” etc. We found that he would embrace the latest technology, but he still acknowledged the dual nature of it. As for his daily conversation with his friends, he suggested that he hardly talk about it, because he and his friend had little knowledge in this area.
    Then we asked him about genetic engineering and genetically modified food. Mr. Siu had not heard of these two, but he speculated that this technology might be related to Dolly, the cloned sheep. From this kind of answer, we guessed that Mr. Siu tried to use his knowledge to evaluate certain things, but due to his current level of education, some links were not established properly. Later, we asked whether he thought genetic engineering is good or not. He initially said that it can raise the productivity of the society, so it is good, but later, after we introduced certain worries about this technology, he hesitated a little and expressed his concerns too. However, in general, he thought that everything has a dual nature, and proper assessment and regulation from the government are crucial, but the trend for the development of technology would not be hindered.
    Apart from the genetic engineering, we presented to him the definition of synthetic biology. His perspective was simple, that it was quite amazing to design organisms, even like animals, but quite strange too. Later, we introduced the potential values of synthetic biology to him, like design an organism with a wider range of capabilities, and also some possible risks, like uncertainties in the eco-system. His personal view was that everything should be tested and confirmed first. Although it could be convenient and progressive, he said, technologies with lives could affect us directly and might cause big troubles. Nevertheless, at last, he still thought this technology is good. At the end of our interview, we explained our project details to him, and asked for his comments. He simply said that animal tests should be taken seriously, and that the safety of the new treatment should be confirmed.

Achievement and Future work

  First and foremost, we do get a deeper understanding of our interviewee’s understanding of synthetic biology. And we understand that various people have various focuses on the issues of synthetic biology. From the four interviews we mentioned in the preceding section, we can appreciate that the flexibility of the interview helps us to give more specific and deep insight into people’s attitudes. For example, in the politician case, after comprehending that he emphasized more on the social aspect of this technology, we used imaginary situations to ask for his viewpoints. As for the journalist, our questions not only include those consistent questions asked to every interviewee, but also cover some personal perspectives of the relationship between media and synthetic biology. It can be noted that in the interview, besides the consistent questions we should ask, some additional questions can be improvised during the interview, based on the responses of the interviewees. This improvisation will help us get a deeper insight into people’s opinions.
Our four interviews, in addition, provide a foundation for future interviews, and we hope that the range and number of the interviewees can be widened in the future. From the four interviews mentioned above, we notice that the consistency of the supposed consistent questions is not strong enough. Like any psychological experiments, it is easy to have deviations for all the observers. Not to mention in an interview like ours, the interviewee should have certain leading roles to give us deeper insight. Thus, if any future iGEM team is going to expand this new means of human practice, logistically, we suggest that intensive training is necessary for all the interviewers. And we hope that our suggestion and experience can lay a solid foundation for propagating our interviews.
At the very last, due to the keen insight gained via the interviews, the range and number of the questions which can be asked in a survey are enlarged, laying a firm basis for future survey design. Concerning the problems we faced in our last year survey, it is inevitable that the survey designer may not take all the possible thoughts people may have into consideration. And it is hard to both collect data and get genuine responses if we use too many open-end questions. Since our interviews enlighten us with various perspectives people can have, and an interviewee can hardly be careless during an interview, we can collect more insightful opinions from people and use them to design the questionnaire in future surveys.