Education & Public Engagement
Over the past few decades, science has been advancing at a tremendous speed. Great discoveries and technological advances are being made by the day. Researchers are diving deeper into the mechanisms controlling life and death, the workings of our ecosystems, and the potential to inhabit environments outside of our atmosphere. Unfortunately, most of these exciting new advancements are only known/communicated in the scientific world, where university students, aspiring scientists, and researchers are engaged in. This is, without a doubt, a common phenomenon for the field of synthetic biology as well.
As a Belgian iGEM team of university students pursuing degrees in life sciences, we spent a lot of time discussing these novel advancements like genome editing with CRISPR/Cas, next-generation sequencing, human cell, and protein atlas projects. In our discussions, we started wondering how many of these advancements, and even basic scientific knowledge, is properly communicated outside of scientific circles.
Since scientific education and public engagement are a few of iGEM’s major goals, we committed to engage with the general non-scientific public of Belgium, to bridge the gap between the science centers and general communities. We focused our efforts on pursuing this goal through various collaborations with schools, universities, art exhibitions, events, and online outreach. We wanted to reach different groups of the Belgian public, starting from younger children in schools of 12-14 years of age, to adults and seniors as old as 76.
Ultimately, we have based our Public Engagement and Education efforts on four major pillars:
- Public Engagement
- Online Outreach
We hope that our efforts can help build a better general understanding of scientific concepts in wider audiences within Belgium.
The first workshop the team did was a collaboration with our university, KU Leuven. We were asked to organize a workshop for children between the ages of 12-14 during the multi-annual “STEM-University” event. When setting up this workshop, we decided that we wanted to introduce the attending kids to DNA and how synthetic biologists use DNA to develop useful applications. We titled the workshop “Had jij Wonder Woman of Super Man kunnen zijn?” translated to “Could you be Wonder Woman or Superman?”.
We challenged the youngsters to think about how exactly they differ from their favorite superhero and what causes this difference; their DNA. After this interactive introduction, we moved on to the practical part, where we conducted multiple biological experiments like extracting DNA from saliva.
Sound of Science
Sound of Science is a brand new science festival in Belgium that has been running since 2018, aiming to inspire and cultivate an appreciation of STEM amongst adults and children. The festival involves the participation of major Belgian companies and educational institutes to inspire the next generation of scientists. This year our group aimed to join and create a workshop on building a DIY thermocycler.
Building a thermocycler allowed us to explain multiple things, it allowed us to give an easy introduction into what kind of machines are used in labs for synthetic biology. Thereby giving people a more practical understanding of how synthetic biology research is conducted. It also permitted us to explain polymerase chain reactions (PCRs), which meant that smaller concepts such as enzymes, primers, and DNA structures were also introduced. We found that by explaining the mechanisms behind these instruments, the attendees were able to better understand what synthetic biologists do, bridging the gap between the laboratory and the public.
The workshop was accompanied by both a PDF provided to attendees as well as a presentation held at the start. The PDF, made in Dutch, can be accessed here:
We were glad to teach some basic electronics during this workshop. The thermocycler that we built was inspired by the 2018 Vilnius iGEM team and used an Arduino Uno to determine the temperature of our sample based on a single temperature probe nearby. This then activated either a fan to cool the sample in case the temperature was too high, or a Peltier element to heat the sample in case the temperature was too low. Despite having a wide age range in the attendees of our workshop, we found that every group was eventually able to build the thermocycler, and we received an enthusiastic amount of questions on how the process worked and what we used it for. The children who were at the workshop enjoyed building the electronics in a building block fashion, and we found that teenagers and adults were curious about what applications the process might have. We are glad to say that the Sound of Science group also found our workshop successful, and we look forward to the next team’s workshop at the festival!
Bioethics Workshop & Pitch @ Innovation Night
On the 5th of June, our team joined the Innovation Night event in Leuven. During this annual event, regional and national leaders of industry, entrepreneurship, and engineering are invited to a temporary hotspot of creativity amongst student teams. Altogether, over 180 organizations that invested in various student teams in Leuven attend this evening, coming together to share ideas amongst each other and with the student teams themselves.
Our bioethics workshop allowed us to reach out to many of these people on a more personal level. During the evening, we gave people a dilemma:
Participants are scientists that are trying to create a cure against the (fictional) deadly ‘Cobra virus.’ Participants were
then asked to create a DNA sequence out of seven blocks that had to be put together, starting with a promoter and ending with a
terminator sequence. The participants of our workshop were then given a sheet with different attributes for each block, some beneficial,
some negative. Each team then engaged in a debate regarding what genes they wanted, and what genes they wanted to avoid.
Interestingly enough, every single team ended up building a different sequence of blocks. Our workshop continued by considering the morals and ethics behind such genetic engineering, and why people had chosen the pieces they had. We found that several participants had different opinions on how to handle the issues at hand, and our debate ended up helping to inform both us and the participants more about what the general ethical consensus amongst us was.
VR Exhibit @ Advanced Engineering, Innovation Night and Leve[n]dekunst
This year, our team pioneered a VR exhibit that digitally allowed the general public to modify and insert a cell into an environment with other cells in a game-like manner. This project was extensive and was demoed across three separate professional events, starting with the artistic Leve[n]dekunst (An art exhibit that can be translated as either Living art, or Long Live Art), Advanced Engineering (An industry event for demonstrating engineering technologies), and Innovation Night (An industry event for showing what the various teams of KU Leuven are working on). By doing this, we were able to create a discussion about how synthetic biology works, and we were able to engage with various leaders of the public in an approachable manner.
To create this VR exhibit, our team started from scratch by using Python to create an environment with two main variables. The first variable was something that the public engaged with through the VR headset. This was the ‘Environment’ consisting of one hundred blank cells that could live and die in real-time; this was what the audience saw through the VR headset.
This software platform served as a mathematically abstract simulation where we created one hundred ‘host’ cells that our inserted
cells could interact with. This model allowed for users to interact with our VR exhibit. They were able to enter a genetic sequence of
distinct ‘blocks’, which in turn determined the final cell that would be visualized into the simulation. Blocks were abstractly
based on actual biological sequences, for example, block ‘E’ was a promoter, and block ‘F’ was a Ribosomal Binding Site. Without
these necessary blocks, inserted cells would not do anything.
By using these distinct blocks, we were able to give each inserted cell its individual statistics. For example, differing in how fast the cells reproduced, how fast they died, or even how much they helped the ‘Environmental’ host cells recover from harmful insertions. This gave us a basis to explain how we build and interact with cells from a synthetic biology standpoint.
Finally, we contacted a local artist group from Belgium, called SEAD (Space Ecologies Art and Design), to assist us in the design. We created a visual interface inside the VR headset that allowed participants to visually experience the effects of the bacteria they had created and see how it was interacting with the environment in an artistic manner. A visualization of this environment can be seen below:
We presented this project initially at Leve[n]dekunst, an art exhibit that was open to the general public and held at the Royal Academy of Science and Arts (KVAB) next to the Belgian Royal Palace. We found this to be a fantastic event, where we also encountered artists who had created many other things.
This first pilot of our VR setup also allowed us to refine our project for the next event we showed it off at Advanced Engineering. We are very proud to have been one of the only synthetic biology teams at the Advanced Engineering fair, having the opportunity to open up and display the new potential in synthetic biology to the 1764 attendees. While the fair was an industry event, and therefore not open to the general public, we did have the opportunity to engage with many engineers from all kinds of industries, from medical panel specialists to people who develop electric bikes. Our participation in Advanced Engineering marks the start of synthetic biology as an entry into mainstay engineering technology, and we’re happy to have contributed to a fair that is typically aimed at more traditional engineering. More info can be found here.
Finally, our participation at Innovation night with the VR headset provided an excellent addition to the two fairs mentioned above. We found that we were able to get more advice about our project and were happy to talk to a crowd that was enthusiastic not only about us but also about the future of synthetic biology and what possibilities it offers us as a society. More pictures of our involvement at the Innovation Night can be found here.
Pitch @ Innovation Night
On the 5th of June, our team joined the Innovation Night event in Leuven, an event where regional and national leaders of the industry, entrepreneurship, and engineering were invited to a temporary hotspot of creativity amongst student teams. Altogether, over 180 organizations that invested in various student teams in Leuven attended this evening, coming together to share ideas amongst each other and with the student teams themselves.
During this event, our team presented three separate things – an industry pitch, a workshop to create a debate, and our VR Project, which is detailed in the Public Engagement section. We gave a preliminary pitch of our project to industry professionals. This pitch allowed us to gather industry advice: we developed a deeper understanding of what our project needed in order to be accepted as an industry standard. Many of the people who were present during this night (and at Advanced Engineering) were experts in investment, and we gathered knowledge about how best to apply our project to the industry and how to make it the most relevant it possibly can be.
BE SynBio Meeting
The BE SynBio meeting was a two-day workshop held from 16th-17th of September in Leuven, Belgium. This meetup aimed to bring together enthusiastic SynBio researchers from different Belgian universities. The first day focused on various scientific domains relevant to synthetic biology: microbiology, metabolic engineering, directed evolution, modeling, and control theory. The second day focused on the synbio community in Belgium and how to further establish and grow this community in the current Belgian scientific landscape. It was in the context of this community building that KU Leuven iGEM was allowed to talk about how the 2019 team came off the ground, iGEM at KU Leuven, and this year’s project OCYANO.
Our presentation sparked an interesting discussion about why Belgium lacks an established presence involving participation in the iGEM competition compared to neighboring countries like France, Germany, and the Netherlands. Multiple difficulties were pointed out, including the access to sufficient resources, expertise to start an iGEM project or to find enough student initiative to start up an iGEM team. Multiple solutions were proposed when brainstorming about possible solutions, including setting up an interuniversity team to be able to share knowledge and resources and to introduce iGEM into the curriculum to allow students to have sufficient time to work on an iGEM project.
Since we are the only participating team from Belgium this year, we hope to have pointed out the benefits of participating in the iGEM competition for both the participating students and the university, so that eventually an iGEM community and a broader SynBio community in Belgium can be established.
To wrap up the year full of public engagement projects, we organized a KU Leuven iGEM alumni barbeque. Team members of previous iGEM editions were invited to share their experiences and meet the 2019 group. The meetup allowed participants to reunite with their teammates and reflect back on their iGEM adventures. A lot of excellent networking went on between the alumni teams as we discussed the importance of communicating the iGEM experiences post the Giant Jamboree to future generations of the competition. The general consensus was that a stronger support system for advice regarding time management, sponsorships, team management, and agile project management for the next teams should be set in place. By organizing alumni events, we hope to establish a vast iGEM alumni community in Belgium.
Six pics challenge
We were approached by the iGEM BOKU Vienna team to participate in the “Six Pics Challenge”. The collaboration challenged us to create multiple drawings describing our iGEM project in six cartoon-style pictures. The final result would be a comic explaining the different projects of the participating iGEM teams. By participating in this collaboration, we hope to have contributed toward a significant outreach effort by describing our project in an accessible and easy-to-understand manner. We want to thank iGEM BOKU Vienna for setting up this fun collaboration! Check out the final result here:
SynBio Gone Viral
Synbio Gone Viral was a collaboration between our team and the teams of iGEM Aachen and iGEM GO Paris Saclay. When we first started planning our conference, we aimed to develop a wholly European conference that was made not only by a single European team but rather with input (and output) from other European groups as well. With our goal set in place, our two collaborators were reached out to, and we started discussing what we could do to plan a conference together when hundreds of kilometers separated us.
We worked onwards and developed our conference through weekly Skype calls between all three teams and reached out to iGEM Ambassadors Dorothy Zhang and Niek Savelkoul. With time, our team developed close bonds with both the Paris and Aachen teams, and we found the collaboration a prospect that grew ever more exciting as time went on.
Our conference was organized into three parts: location, catering, and other local-related things that were mainly organized by our team, while content for the conference was created in agreement with the three groups. iGEM Aachen worked in close collaboration with us to select and bring speakers over from Germany, and we ended up bringing both Rafael Galupa from the European Molecular Biology Lab (EMBL) and Dr. Tom Robinson from the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces along. Both speakers represented truly European collaborations, and we were inspired by their talks! Aachen further helped to contribute by helping to seek out sponsoring both in financial terms and by helping to spread the message of our conference to other teams. We also got an excellent level of assistance in other innumerable small tasks, even having some of their team show up ahead of the conference to help set up. Thank you, Aachen!
GO Paris Saclay also helped to arrange the website for our conference, as well as organizing a workshop for all attending iGEM teams. We were grateful for their financial help in paying for the T-shirts that were used by all crew of the SynBio conference, and for helping us in contacting other teams about the meetup. Once again, we had an innumerable number of small things that they helped us with, and we are quite grateful for their assistance!
From the 20th until the 22nd of September, our conference was a massive success – In total, eleven different iGEM teams from eight different European countries attended our conference. During the conference’s scheduling, the team of UCopenhagen won our Best Presentation award for our mini-Jamboree presentation, while the team of GO Paris Saclay won the Best Poster award. We did not only have presentations, additionally, but we also had several workshops hosted both by iGEM teams (from our team and iGEM Potsdam) as well as industrial partners.
We had a good time attending a tour of the breweries of Stella Artois, a Belgian beer brand. We also got to learn about the different processes (microbiological, too) that are used in beer fermentation, and of course, could partake in a delicious beer tasting and tapping course. We additionally had speakers from Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium attending our conference, from both industrial and academic origins. Many thanks to Prof. Dr. Gerard Govers as the vice-rector of the Science, Technology, and Engineering group at KU Leuven for opening our conference on Saturday.
Furthermore, we want to thank Dr. Filip Delport from FOX Biosystem, Dr. Vanessa La Pointe from MERLN, Maastricht University, Prof.
Dr. Patrick van Dijck from StixFresh, Dr. Wim van Hecke from icometrix and Niek Savelkoul for coming to speak at our conference.
Additional thanks to Prof. Dr. Vitor Pinheiro, Dr. Benjamien Moeyaert, and Prof. Dr. Johan Robben for helping us with our feedback
for presentations, and our impressive panel discussion.
The booklet for our conference can be viewed here:
Global Business Plan Collaboration
We collaborated with the iGEM team of the University of New South Wales (UNSW) on the Global Business Plan Initiative. The goal of this collaboration was to develop a straightforward business scaffold that scientists can utilize to commercialize their ideas. As an iGEM team, we find it incredibly important to encourage entrepreneurship among researchers. By participating in the development of an easy-to-use scaffold, we hope to have made a significant contribution to this encouragement.
The collaboration started with UNSW iGEM providing us with a first draft of the scaffold. We used this first version to consult multiple experts in Leuven on its content and discussed the necessary adjustment with the UNSW iGEM team through multiple Skype meetings. The UNSW iGEM team eventually combined the feedback from the participating iGEM teams and provided us with a final version of the scaffold that can be found under the Entrepreneurship section of this wiki. Looking back on this collaboration, we realize it was an educational and exciting experience for us to learn more about business and entrepreneurship. We felt like we made a significant contribution to this initiative by providing input and by including region-specific elements into the scaffold. We would like to thank the UNSW IGEM team for this pleasant collaboration and for setting up this global partnership between multiple iGEM teams. We also used this scaffold to write our business plan. Read it here.
iGEM Spring Festival
Our team attended the iGEM Spring Festival at the beginning of the year, where we had a great time learning about synthetic biology and engaging with the global iGEM community. We had so much fun that we even vlogged about it! Check out the full vlog here.
Throughout the project, we used channels like Facebook, Instagram, Linkedin, and Medium to regularly update our partners, sponsors, and supporters on our day-to-day activities.
After each event we attended, we wrote a blogpost on the experiences and interactions we had. The blogpost on the VR, for example, highlighted the design strategy of the simulation. We also conducted weekly interviews with several of our team members to highlight the work they were doing and the experiences they were having.
Check out all blogposts here!
“A Look Around” Instagram Stories series
On Instagram, we started an Instagram Stories series called “A Look Around”. The idea behind this concept was that each subteam would highlight their main activities in a short 30 second Instagram Stories. The series challenged our team members to think outside the box and creatively showcase their work.
Lots of fun sketches were made by the Wet-lab, Dry-lab, and Finance teams. The Wet Lab team shot a parody to
“Don’t Stop me Now” by Queen, in which they sing about the optical density measurements of their cyanobacteria cultures.
Watch the full Wet-lab tour here.
Check out the full series at our Instagram page!
When brainstorming ideas for the reveal of our project, we quickly noticed we were having trouble explaining our work to friends and family, or to anyone with a non-scientific background. We eventually came up with the idea to turn the project reveal in an easy-to-understand animation video. Team artist Valentino along with Konrad taking the lead as the scriptwriter, got to work, ultimately making a 3-minute AsapScience-styled video explaining the project inspiration and science.
Watch the full video here.
KU Leuven iGEM also had the opportunity to be featured in the newsletter of the Science, Engineering, and Technology Group of KU Leuven. This newsletter is sent out monthly to all staff and researchers within the group. In the interview, out team leader Lucas highlighted this year’s team, the project, and the outreach we had been doing.
Read the full interview here!