Human practices or social outreach should be one of the primary pillars of each iGEM team since without it an idea cannot spread. Without it, you cannot motivate or inspire others to do bigger and greater things in science. Having a great idea without communicating it and learning from each other is not condusive towards innovation and therefore we took Human Practices into a special focus this year
iGEM Bonn deliberated long on a plan to create social events to inspire and motivate and also educate. From science slams to school visits, continue reading to find out what we did to further understanding of science and synthetic biology for the general public.
Engagement and Education.
Most people are not well educated regarding the controversial topic of synthetic biology and have antagonizing views towards buzzwords like GMO. Its time we change public opinion by engaging and showing the wonders of science and taking Engagement and Education quite literally.
Open to the public free of charge, we organized and planned a Science slam visit in one the most prominent research institutes in Germany, CAESAR, the Center of Advanced European Studies and Research. We spread the word and a large amount of people showed up and the crowd was very animated. Also open to anyone on the street we set up a city booth about our project and answered any and all questions regarding synthetic biology and explaining our project - no matter the age.Learn More
Mutual Respect and Education.
We are not experts on our field and some ideas for our projects even came from the most unlikely sources.
Our open-to-all city booth actually provided the most insight from every age and educational background. From Professors in plant science from London to young girls in elementary school, all ages and educational backgrounds participated. Probably the most impressive suggestion that we have considered since then as the main idea for the
integrated human practice part came from a little girl, who came by our stand with her mother. The
two of them stopped and looked at our poster. We talked to them and tried to explain all the
scientific facts in a very simple and plausible way, especially for the little girl.
She soon seemed to have understood the project and was enthusiastic about the idea of seeing bright trees instead of streetlights thanks to OptoPlants. Of course, this would be a big step, we explained.
But for us, it was impressive to see how we could inspire a young person to be so enthusiastic about our project and biology itself. Of course, we also asked the mother and daughter for suggestions for improvement, because we were still looking for our Integrated Human Practice part. When we looked more closely at the application of OptoPlants, the little girl suddenly said: “Can you make all the plants glow? How about a glowing cactus? They can grow where it´s especially hot!”
Our minds were immediately working on that idea. We took her advice. As science students, our passion about synthetic biology and optimism about the outcomes and uses of the OptoPlant, might prevent us to see our results and long term expectations from a broader point of view. That is why we decided to get in contact with people from different backgrounds, cultures and way of living, who can share their opinion with us, and help us design a project with a clearer idea of the areas that would benefit from it.
We had the pleasure to interview and have a conversation with a representative from an indigenous community of the southern part of Ecuador, the Saraguros. Her name is María Gabriela Albuja Izurieta, she is focused on projects that give children from the community the possibility to get an intercultural and trilingual education that goes hand in hand with their principles and beliefs. Talking to her helped us understand what indigenous communities think about GMOs. Nowadays, the opinion of these communities influences significantly on social movements and governmental decisions in South America. Such communities have worked hard to make their voice heard and show their presence. If their opinion is relevant and valuable for decision making of the different governments, we asked ourselves, why wouldn't it be for us? If the long term outcome of our project is supposed to be directed to those who need alternatives to light roads and streets because of high electricity costs and scarce resources, we need to take the views of those into consideration who live under those circumstances.
GMOs are still very controversial, some people support their creation and others reject it, many countries have laws that forbid the placement of genetically modified products on the market. In Ecuador and other countries in South America, the use of transgenic seeds is still something new, indeed, laws allowing the importation of transgenics were recently approved. Indigenous communities are the main providers and producers of agricultural products such as vegetables and fruits. Therefore, getting informed about how GMOs affect the soil and their lands is becoming a priority for them. Even though minor producers and farmers are aware of the benefits in terms of productivity of using such plants, some of them prefer to reject them and keep on using what they consider "natural seeds".
Since the OptoPlant could be considered a GMO, knowing and understanding the points of view and arguments of groups against their use is necessary for project designing and development.
Having this conversation with Gabriela, allowed us to understand and reflect on their arguments to be against GMOs, and what beliefs make them stay in such a position. As she mentions in the interview, the relationship they have with the Pachamama (mother earth) is so close, that part of respecting it is considering its seeds as something sacred.
Their main concern about introducing the OptoPlant in their areas is how it will affect the balance of the habitat, and what effect will it have on other living beings that belong to that ecosystem. She showed herself worried about disrupting the equilibrium of ecosystems by the insertion of OptoPlant. Moreover, she was also intrigued by the idea of creating OptoPlant. Even though GMOs are not well seen by their community, she agreed that as long as the plant is not used for food and traditional medicine, it might be accepted, but still wondering how it's the habitat going to be affected.
We haven't gone that far on thinking what effect will it have on the ecosystems and habitat of other living beings. In her opinion, big cities would be the areas taking the most advantage of OptoPlant, because of the huge demand for electric energy, for instance, in lighting of streets and public places. In addition to that, she mentions that OptoPlant might become mostly a decoration object, but the possibility is not limited to that.
Now, we aim with this project, not to only give places where electricity is very expensive and limited a possibility to have an alternative light source, but also, think on places where electric energy is used the most, and offer an option to substitute it for the already mentioned, lighting for public places and roads.
Talking to Gabriela, also allowed us to show the other face of GMOs to the Saraguros. Reaching out to these kind of communities will help us to improve the perception of synthetic biology and develop projects that don't cross the fine line between ethics and genetic modifications. Furthermore, it helped us to learn how to reach different communities and work together on further project designing.
How 'bout a european meetup?
Celebrating iGEM and its foundations and celbrating synthetic biology and science we decided to invite teams all over Europe to a meetup in our home city of Bonn with CAESAR Research Center providing the venue.
A lot of effort and hard work went into this and we managed to make it fantastic and we received very positive feedback; We set a new standard for european meetups.Learn More