Our goal with this project is to utilize synthetic biology to strengthen an existing industry. However, we recognized that synthetic biology itself could be its own industry. In our own city we see successful businesses arise from companies that utilize synthetic biology, like in FREDsense Technologies and Willow Biosciences. We believe that this industry could introduce a second wind in our economy, so we made it our goal to explore ways that we can help it flourish.
With the goal of strengthening Alberta’s economy through the biotechnology sector, we identified three key areas that we felt could determine success in our province. Namely, a skilled workforce, proper infrastructure, and consumer acceptance.
Creating a skilled workforce
To effectively build the biotechnology industry, our province requires a skilled workforce of individuals. To achieve this goal, we aimed to inspire young students to pursue further education in biology, and increase synthetic biology education at the undergraduate level.
Inspiring Future Academics
To spread awareness of the field of synthetic biology and increase interest in iGEM, our team presented a lecture to two grade 10 science classes, and a grade 12 chemistry AP class at Webber Academy. Our team wanted to inspire students to pursue further education in biology and to make them aware that genetic engineering exists as a viable career path.
Our team designed the lecture to be a gentle introduction to the science behind genetic engineering. Plasmids, restriction digests, and ligations were covered in the lecture portion, and students were treated to a fun strawberry DNA extraction activity to help them envision the work we do on a molecular scale. Following this, we led a discussion about ethical science research and the potential repercussions of irresponsible science. This format let us educate the students on scientific principles while also getting them excited about the possibilites present in responsible science.
During the activities, students were engaged and excited about the work they were performing. They were curious and eager to hear what it was like to work in a genetic engineering laboratory, filling the rest of the time with thoughtful and inquisitive questions about working in this emerging industry.
MDSC 507: Introduction to Synthetic Biology
At our university there is no coursework available to introduce students to synthetic biology. In fact, the iGEM Calgary team is one of only a few organizations in Calgary that empower students to explore this innovative field.To grow the synthetic biology knowledge base in our province, we set out to develop a university level course in synthetic biology.
Team leads planned and created a series of lectures on common topics found in synthetic biology. Supplemented with assignments, presentations, lab reports, and exams, the result was a comprehensive educational package providing all the essentials to teach a course on the topic. The course was designed to guide a student with no knowledge of genetic engineering to a place where they could begin designing their own parts and performing experiments.
Titled Medical Science 507: Introduction to Synthetic Biology (MDSC 507), the course was rolled out in the Winter semester for new iGEM Calgary members. Team leads lead lectures to a group of 9 students and were supervised by the team’s primary PI, Dr. Mayi Arcellana-Panlilio.
Once the semester concluded, the team discussed the course’s pros and cons with the ultimate goal of improving its content. Wet lab members applauded the instruction of genetic engineering principles, but desired more lab practice, and dry lab members expressed the need for protein modeling and machine learning in course content. In an effort to further improve content, we consolidated our content into an educational package that was sent to a number of iGEM teams across the world, including Waterloo, KCL, CU iGEM, iGEM Rainmakers, and Concordia-Montreal. Their feedback will be integrated into the final package and MDSC 507 will run again in the winter semester for iGEM Calgary 2020 members with the improved course content.
In the long term, the team hopes to open the course to students outside of iGEM as regular course for all university students, and to kickstart its implementation at other universities.
In Alberta we are lucky that there are a number of organizations that support early stage startups and the development of their technologies. Whether it’s in biotechnology, or the tech sector, there are companies that specialize in their growth. Alberta Innovates is one of the organizations that our team has worked with extensively, by exploring how we can pursue our project in the startup space through IP protection. Our team wanted to encourage other Alberta teams to explore these entrepreneurship avenues so that they can move their projects beyond the lab as well.
We invited Alberta iGEM teams to a midsummer meetup to share projects and learn about synthetic biology entrepreneurship. Attendees included members from the University of Alberta and Lethbridge collegiate teams as well as the Lethbridge High School team.
We designed this event to foster entrepreneurship and camaraderie between innovators. The first part of our event was aimed at developing the projects as business proposals. All teams presented a short pitch of their project, which was followed by a brief question and feedback period where members from other teams and guests could comment. The pitch allowed teams to start thinking about how their project could fit into the market and be of value to the current economy. Four guest speakers were then invited to talk about specific topics in entrepreneurship and provide advice on how to transform ideas into businesses.
- Dr. Peter Facchini- a University of Calgary Professor and Co-founder of Willow Biosciences talked about his experience of taking his research and turning it into a company. He emphasized the importance of passion, patience, and persistence when starting a company.
- Emily Hicks from FREDsense was a member of the 2012 iGEM Calgary team where she, along with her teammates, turned their project into a company after the Jamboree. Emily highlighted the obstacles FREDsense faced in terms of funding the company and acquiring support.
- University of Calgary law student Jason Arnason gave an informative presentation about acquiring patents and protecting intellectual property. Our team had very limited knowledge on this topic when we started our project this year, so we wanted to ensure other teams got the information they needed to protect their ideas as well.
- Swapan Kakumanu- Co-Founder of the consulting firm Red to Black Inc provided his expertise on how to finance start-ups and navigate the market when creating a new product. He talked about the different funding options available to start-ups and how to reach out to investors.
The later half of our event was focused on building camaraderie, creating a network of support, and starting collaborations between the Alberta iGEM teams. We organized social activities and games to accomplish this and provided guiding questions for the initiation of collaborations.
Overall, JulyGEM was considered a success, as we accomplished many of the goals we initially set. A survey was sent to all attendees after the event, many of whom commended the entrepreneurial insight and information provided by speakers. Particularly, the presentation on IP protection and patent acquisition was mentioned to be very valuable. Additionally, our goal of building camaraderie and support amongst teams was accomplished through our social events.
Despite our successes, there were some areas for improvement. Extending the event over two days may have allowed us to further accomplish our goals and add other elements which may have helped the teams. Workshops on pitching and specific elements of entrepreneurship may have been more helpful for the teams. One-on-one time with the speakers may have fostered better conversation, as the speaker presentations were stylized as lectures rather than discussions. Finally, we realized that this event may not have been the best opportunity for forming collaborations, which was one of our main goals for the event. In the future, it may be valuable to add a more formal workshop specifically for collaborations if that continues to be of the event’s goals.
Modern day media and lawmakers lead the charge behind the acceptance of GMO’s. Unfortunately, we often see the perceived impact of these products being skewed by misinformation, leading to fear due to misunderstanding. At the end of the day, consumers make the decision as to whether or not they purchase a product, so we decided to set out to educate these individuals on what exactly genetically modified products to ensure that their decisions are informed decisions.
In August, we ran a booth at TELUS Spark, Calgary’s center for science exploration, at their monthly “Adult Night”, where adults were invited to an evening of science discovery through special programming. Attendees were walked through a fun, Strawberry DNA Extraction activity, starting with mashing up bags of strawberries and ending with pouring alcohol to draw DNA out of the cell. The same activity we did with high school students, but with an edible exchange of ingredients. As attendees went through the process, our team members engaged them in a discussion of the science behind the extraction and the work that we do as an iGEM team. Leading to an engaging and educational experience for all.
Adult’s Night at TELUS Spark was a huge success for us. 300 individuals stopped by the booth, discussed genetic engineering, and learned about how we are using synthetic biology to alleviate the impact of green seed canola. At the end of the night, we left the event inspired by our discussions, and the positive reception that the attendees had regarding our work.
However, soon after we realized that maybe we hadn’t reached our intended audience. Those who attended TELUS Spark’s adults night were already willing to go to a science center, where there would no doubt be new ideas and inventions around every corner. Suggesting that these people were already receptive to scientific innovation and its applications in society. With this realization, our team set out to develop more programming that would attract a more general audience.
In May 2019, the Life Sciences Innovation Hub (LSI) approached us about collaborating with them on hosting a “Bacteria Night” event at their new location. The Life Sciences Innovation Hub, located in Calgary, Alberta, is a lab and entrepreneurial space operated by Innovate Calgary providing programming and support to their tenants. The LSI’s mission to encourage innovators to “Collaborate, exchange ideas, leverage best practices, and engage with the growing life sciences community in Calgary” perfectly lines up with iGEM Calgary’s own values.
On September 26, 2019 we set up shop in the LSI and ran an event where kids and adults of all ages got to paint with bacteria and learn about synthetic biology. We gave a short presentation to the guests about the innovative applications of genetic engineering and its recent emergence in science and society..
The Good, the Bad, the Biological: philosophical discussion
Our goal to be a beacon for scientific education did not stop at us merely disseminating information, but continuing to inform a discussion on topics surrounding the science being done in the laboratory. As synthetic biology increasingly invades and occupies the public consciousness, images of Frankenstein and mad scientists are typically used to sensationalize scientific advances in the eye of the public. Thus, it became a priority for us to foster a public discussion about the future of synthetic biology and the regulatory, legislative, and ethical factors that must be taken into consideration as the future quickly approaches. The primary goal of this event was to create an open-forum where not only would attendees learn from the invited speakers, but that we might learn more about the public’s perception of the work we are doing.