Team:Bielefeld-CeBiTec/Public Engagement

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To enable a fact-based public discourse about Synthetic Biology (SynBio), education needs to be easily accessible for everyone. To involve people with almost no interest in life sciences, we opened two exhibitions on SynBio in two completely different museums: a literature and a natural history museum. Collaborating with the administrators of each museum we learned the importance of ensuring that the information is communicated in a target group specific manner and considering the interests of their visitors. In the Goethe museum for example, the administration helped us to focus on the connection between Goethe’s work and SynBio. We learned that this was beneficial for mutual learning. During the opening events we had open-minded discussions with the visitors of both museums and learned even more about possible junctures in between SynBio and other areas of life. We recommend that future teams should also consider developing concepts together with members of the target group.

SynBio Exhibitions

The march for Science in Duesseldorf.
At this year’s march for science in cologne, we listened to a very inspiring talk by Rangar Yogeshwar who stated that the public discussion regarding actual scientific topics often lacks the newest insights. This issue arises because most scientists are not actively searching the public debate. Since there are almost no scientific lobbies and just a handful of scientists are strongly engaged in politics and science communication something like a small parallel world developed. To open the world of natural sciences a little more we decided to design a concept that allows us to present our beloved SynBio to people with the most diverse interests, not related to SynBio at all.
We worked out that everyone’s interests in new topics are rising as soon as it is related to his other interests, so we opened an exhibition on SynBio in two different museums to get in contact with a variety of target audiences:
The natural history museum NaMu in Bielefeld and the Goethe Museum in Düsseldorf. While we expect the people visiting the NaMu to be interested in the life sciences in general, and therefore also in synthetic biology, we did not expect the same amount of interest for the visitors of the Goethe Museum. Why? The Goethe Museum is usually about literature – and the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
The natural history museum in Bielefeld.
The Goethe museum in Düsseldorf.
On account of our main goal to reach out to people not interested in science, we planned to get them in touch with synthetic biology through our own prepared exhibition. Working together with Damian Mallepree, from the Goethe Museum, we have experienced that many topics Goethe discussed are still relevant today and show a surprisingly close connection to synthetic biology. Additionally, through the extensive planning stages we learnt that some questions Goethe had already asked himself are still being asked in the life sciences today:
What are the substances needed for life?
Is it possible to create a homunculus, a synthetically crafted human?
Is there some kind of primordial plant?

Collaborating with the museums management we were able to construct an exhibition that combines both worlds: Goethe and synthetic biology. Our aim was to line out the connections between liberal arts and natural sciences. Regarding the polymath Goethe, the task was surprisingly easy.
Goethe often wondered about the basis of life and whether it would be possible to create life from scratch which is also one of the main questions synthetic biologists strive to answer.
That is why we incorporated the general idea of minimal organisms and how they are constructed into the exhibition. Of course, we also included the basics – starting with the general structure and function of DNA and applications of synthetic biology.
Easily understandable explanation of the concept of minimal organisms as displayed in the Goethe Museum in Düsseldorf and the Natural History Museum in Bielefeld.
Visualization of how restriction enzymes work for both exhibitions in Bielefeld and Düsseldorf.
We further designed posters that explain techniques often used in synthetic biology, like PCR and cloning via restriction enzymes.
Moreover, we included the idea of Goethe’s primordial plant whose general concept is that all plants derived from one “primordial plant” and that parts of it should be present in each existing plant. While not all plants derived from the same organism, the all share one feature: Chloroplasts! So we also incorporated that into our posters to increase the interest of the visitor’s of the Goethe museum for synthetic biology.
Additionally, to gain insight into a standard laboratory of today, we set up a lab bench for people to get first insights in the world of modern laboratories, which differs extremely from the image of the most people. We provided pipettes and different vessels with colorful, yet harmless, liquids (water stained with food colors) for people to enjoy and practice. The pipettes we used were old pipettes that were not accurate enough for daily lab use anymore – and were sterilized prior to putting them into the museums.
The chloroplast - the modern version of Goethe's primordial plant.
The Lab bench as setup in the Goethe museum in Düsseldorf.
On the lab bench, we also left a lab notebook with some typical experiments and the opportunity for visitors to write down their thoughts on synthetic biology and our exhibition. Several weeks after the opening ceremony, Damian Mallepree informed us that many visitors loved our idea of a small guestbook since we got numerous nice and helpful responses.
At the opening event, we were able to give a small talk on our project that led to an inspiring discussion about the advantages and possible dangers of SynBio and genetical engineering. During this open-minded debate we experienced that most people were very interested in our project, synthetic biology and natural sciences in general even though their usual interests are far away from those topics.
Therefore, we are very glad to create a first connection between the literature loving people and the scientific world.
Presenting synthetic biology and our project in the Goethe museum in Düsseldorf.
The iGEM-Team Duesseldorf performed experiments to visualize the DNA.
Afterwards, during an open encounter in the exhibition rooms, the iGEM-team Duesseldorf presented experiments to demonstrate the exhibited lab supplies. One of their experiments included the isolation of DNA from fruits and vegetables. This sparked discussions about the basis of life and whether such a complex molecule could emerge by chance.
People also mentioned that by seeing that DNA was just a white, wobbly substance, they overthought their concerns regarding methods to modify DNA. This spiked discussions about whether changing it would be wrong in general or whether there might be situations in which it could be beneficial and therefore worth the risk. Getting in contact with people that are highly interested in the other areas of life but have little to no experience in life sciences was a very inspiring event for us.
The gained experience really helped us to design a concept for our second exhibition in the NaMu in Bielefeld.
Setup in the museum in Düsseldorf with one of our team members explaining the posters to visitors.
Presenting the lab bench and the slide show in the NaMu in Bielefeld.
The NaMu is a small but well-structured museum on natural history in Bielefeld. It is mainly visited by families and children. Regarding our previously gained knowledge on designing a customized exhibition concept we worked closely together with the museum’s administration.
By focusing more on the theory of SynBio and its history we attempted to meet the expectations of estimated visitors. Dr. Isolde Wrazidlo and Sabine Palm from the NaMu have helped us structure our posters so that they are more accesible for people with less prior knowledge of SynBio, while retaining the informational content.
To illustrate lab work in general we also setup a slide show With pictures from the lab and typical lab instruments, microscopy pictures and finally of us working in the lab. This helps to capture the attention of visitors and additionally illustrates a typical laboratory setting.
All posters present in the museums can be found in the following slide show! If future teams are interested in setting up something similar, we would be happy to work with them to translate the posters to their respective languages.

What other teams could learn from it

If any future iGEM teams are interested in teaching SynBio to people that are not usually invested in this particular field of science, they should first try to learn more about the target group by first-hand experience. This can be achieved perfectly by talking to and learning from strongly engaged members of this group.

Some examples wherein this could also be applicable are:


Within the area of Space Travel, microorganisms are rather important. Anything sent to Space must be properly sterilized and new methods how to achieve this must be developed constantly. Moreover, if we ever want to colonize Mars, we must come up with ways to grow all kinds of food in such an alien environment. We shortly talked about this with Paul Zabel who is positioned at the German Aerospace Center. However, just knowing that would not be enough to really engage with the community.
Nevertheless, this information is not sufficient to really engage with the community. Therefore, prior to actually teaching people from that group, more communication is necessary. Possible places to get involved and later present information within the Space-Community would be Space Museums, astronomical observatories or events of your national space agency – as always, working together with the administrators.


To reach out to people that are engaged in the area of Agriculture, it is important to focus on topics relevant to their daily life. During our countless encounters with farmers and people from the farming industry, we learnt that one of their aims is to constantly improve their work and decrease their impact on the environment. Genetic engineering and SynBio could have a major impact on both intends. When communicating with farmers from all areas of agriculture, we not only learnt that they are highly interested in learning about the techniques that could be used for that. Some farmers from an organization promoting agriculture in Bielefeld even took initiative and reached out to us, requesting whether it would be possible to further teach them about SynBio. If future teams are interested in reaching out to farmers to inform them about possible advantages and disadvantages of life sciences, we would recommend that they reach out to local agriculture organizations and learning from them about current issues. One example in which we learnt a lot about this during our visit at the Forward Farm .
Institutions where it is possible to reach people from agriculture can be trade fairs for agricultural products, events of farming agencies and organizations or typical get-togethers like courtyard festivals.

Cooking and Baking

To engage with people interested in cooking or baking, future teams should focus on these areas to awake their interest in SynBio. In many areas of the food industry, genetic engineering could have a major impact on the quality of food. The taste of vegetables is directly linked to their variety – and many of them could be modified to get tastes that match the special expectancies of people wanting to enjoy them. Moreover, yeasts and other microorganisms directly used in baking, cooking or fermenting foods, are frequently genetically modified to achieve higher productivity or certain tastes. All these factors can be rather interesting for cooks and bakers. But in order to find the most interesting factors, one must contact the community directly, as examples starred chefs or local culinary schools. The latter might also be a good place to communicate with people from the community and teach them about SynBio.

Teaching future generations


Within the celebrations of the 50th birthday of our university, there was a big festival in Bielefeld, organized by the city and the university. It was called Uni.Stadt.Fest. We had a booth setup to show and teach SynBio to children and families visiting the festival. We used the experiences we gained communicating with people in the NaMu in Bielefeld to better teach the children and parents the basics of our project and SynBio. We used easy-to-understand sentences we had learned and performed visualization experiments such as DNA isolation from fruit and vegetables. Many children were really excited about seeing DNA – the blueprint for life – with their own eyes and even being able to touch it.

Student academy

The student academy is an event that takes place for one week and enables students from grade 10 to 11 to experience the life of a scientist for one week. They were taught the theoretical basics and techniques of SynBio.
However, just teaching students theoretically might not be enough to get them engaged in SynBio – they would be missing the fun part of practical work in the lab. Therefore, we worked together with them to do their first steps into the world of SynBio, like their ever Gibson assemblies, PCRs and transformations
The student academy is a long lasting tradition in Bielefeld – one of our team members had already taken part when she was still in school and that is why she is now studying biotechnology and participating in iGEM. This event arouses the interest of young, motivated students to start a career in SynBio and is the first step on their way for future iGEM participation.


Another great possibility to communicate science this year was the fame lab competition in Bielefeld we participated in. For this event, we focused on communicating it to people who are, in general, interested in science, but do have a lack of experience within the area of SynBio. FameLab is an established competition that started in 2005 as part of the Cheltenham Festival and has since become an international event. During the international competition, students and researchers from 30 countries get three minutes to convince the judges that their topic is important and is good for the world in an entertaining and at the same time educational way. Alex, one of our team members, decided to participate in one of the three preliminary finals in Germany. He presented our topic using peaceful and malicious fungi dragons and the brave knight Sir Phagelot who saved the innocent community from them. But see for yourself how he took the audience to the fantasy land of dangerous dragon and helpful Troygenics:

He was one of eleven participants who introduced the audience to their fields of research and their current project – in just three minutes!
Consistent to our observations during the design of the exhibitions we saw that target audience specific presentations enhance the interest drastically. Since Alex used stuffed dragons to explain our project and wrapped it in a short fairytale it was no surprise that the present children loved his talk. In the end Alex got second and was qualified for the national finals. For those, he looked at our topic from a slightly different point of view: He presented it as a farmer. Afterwards, we also got to chat with the other competitors – and even recorded a podcast with one of them in which we discussed our project and possible impacts on the environment. Furthermore, we taked about the reasons that got us to participate in iGEM and why we are into science in general. Regarding science communication we considered ways to engage with the public and about the impact events like the FameLab could have on the perception most people have of scientists. The name of the podcast is Life after Science and you should find it here at some point.


To communicate SynBio to people that we cannot reach physically, we created podcasts to teach them anyways. Firstly, we recorded a discussion with Mark Benecke, a quite famous science communicator in Germany and a member of the party “DIE PARTEI”, Niels Oldenmeier, member of the CDU, the Christian Democratic Union and Niklas Wagener who is a candidate for the green party. Even though it is in German, you can listen to it here:
Additionally, we created three short podcasts aimed at students of all areas of science. While we focused on easily explaining the basics of Genetic Engineering and SynBio and the regulations therof as well as our project, we also included short key words, that were targeted to spike the interest of certain groups of interest. If you are interested in how we did that you can listen to these English podcasts here:
Taking everything we did into consideration, we have learned and implemented how to use target-group specific methods, materials and language to help other people engage in SynBio. We strongly recommend, that all future iGEM teams should focus more on personal and specific methods to reach out to all specific groups of people.