Team:Vilnius-Lithuania/Public Engagement

Education and public engagement

The beginning of 2019 was marked by a WHO statement exposing a health crisis caused by the movement of anti-vaccination. In February we witnessed the pinnacle of this movement in Lithuania, where it manifested through the outbreak of measles. This event sparked heated discussions between the public and professionals – scientists and doctors. It came to light that many people have deep seated doubts about the validity of scientific findings, and, therefore, turn to other sources for information, for example, famous people in the media, who have little to no scientific knowledge.

It seemed like the most pressing problem for our human practices team to tackle. As we delved deeper into the issue, it became evident that vaccine hesitancy is only the tip of an iceberg. After a brief analysis, it appeared that the Lithuanian media has been advocating baseless skepticism towards GMO's, vaccines, and other controversial science subjects for many years. People do not take science seriously and these views are both manifested and fueled through the media. Naturally, we raised a question – what is the cause of the miscommunication and disagreement? What is the main source of science skepticism?


It is essential not to merge various forms of science skepticism into one, so we decided to focus on the subject that is important for the ethics of synthetic biology - the acceptance of GMOs. We did an in-depth literature review of articles analysing the factors that influence a person’s perception of GMOs and the perception of risk in general. Next, we formulated a number of hypotheses covering the most frequently mentioned factors of great impact. However, we still had to come up with a way to test and illustrate the level of influence and interdependence. Our mathematician came up with an idea to create a mathematical model that includes the influential factors and describes the correlation between them and the person's outlook on GMOs.

First, to test the constructed hypotheses, we carried out a survey. Our hypotheses and the questionnaire items related to the following aspects: personal information like gender, age, religiousness, and field of studies/work, the level of biological knowledge, interest in new technologies or science fields, the reliance on scientists' opinion, the preferred source of information (e.g., television, social media, scientific articles, friends/family/work associates), and the level of social influence (the view on GMOs of friends, family, teachers). The survey consists of 77 questions and is divided into three parts. The first section of the questionnaire collects the respondent’s personal information. The second part includes factual questions meant to test biological knowledge – the respondent has to mark given statements as true or false. The final section consists of interpretive opinion-based questions about genetic engineering, GMOs implementation, and reliance on scientists or other sources of information.
In total, we collected 1102 responses (72% women, 23% men, minage = 14, maxage = 75).

To construct a model, we performed an ordinal regression analysis of the collected data to select factors of significant statistical importance. Such kind of mathematical model allows estimating the correlation of particular characteristics or opinions of a person with their overall attitude towards GMOs.

The equation demonstrates the relationship between the estimates of a person's knowledge, their characteristics (e.g., age, gender), social influence, and their GMO acceptance.

Here you can find the graphs available for downloading.

The outcome of the research confirmed some of our primary hypotheses and revealed a few unforeseen correlations. Surprisingly, the opinion about GMOs of the person’s closest friend has the strongest influence over the person’s acceptance of genetic engineering. Generally, we saw a significant social aspect of the formation of the opinion on GMOs, particularly the beliefs of the former biology teacher and the father. Also, we observed surprising statistical differences between the genders - men are more likely to accept GMOs than women. Presumably, this might relate to dissimilar perceptions of risk.

The most frequent concerns, associated with GMO food or crops are the increase of allergies, extinction of wild species, and the release of modified genes to the environment. Although GMO skepticism is mostly based on subjective bias (e.g., religious beliefs, moral values) rather than biological knowledge, the calculated correlation between the acceptance of GMOs and the level of education about genetic engineering is high. The will to accept the implementation of GMOs varies between age groups - highschool or university students are statistically more likely to be GMO positive than older people. These findings indicate the importance of educating school students about scientific topics like synthetic biology and its products. Not only does teaching improve the biology knowledge of the students and allow critical judgment, but it also initiates communication between the public and academia - the tendency of a person to accept GMOs correlates with their level of trust in the objectivity of scientists’ opinions.

Furthermore, the source of information about genetic engineering might instill a biased opinion. The respondents of our survey evaluated the representation of GMOs in different sources - internet sites, social media or television portray negative opinion about genetic engineering more often than educational institutions or organisations. Individual interests of a person play an important role, too.

Technology and science enthusiasts are more likely to be pro-GMO than those who have no interest in new technologies or science fields. This supposedly connects to the level of scientific knowledge and overall trust in science. The described observations became the basis of some of our activities.

Play with a simulator of the HP model


Do you practise religion?


Evaluate your level of interest in new technologies


Evaluate your level of trust in scientists' opinion



Your friend's opinion about GMOs


Your former biology teacher's opinion about GMOs


Your father's/guardian opinion about GMOs


Evaluate the statements based on your knowledge:

Radiation is used to create gene modifications in the production of genetically modified food

Genetically modified plants are beneficial for the environment since the amount of used chemical pesticides is reduced

If a person eats genetically modified vegetables, his or her genes may be modified

Mutations are always transmitted

The human genome has more genes than the genome of any other living being

RNA is a genetically modified product of DNA

Press Calculate

This game represents the principles of the HP model. The level of GMO acceptance is calculated with the input values of different answers. The original survey consists of 77 questions, please download the the questionnaire.

The quest for restoring trust and interest in science, along with the results of the model, inspired all of our following Education & Public engagement activities.


(Anti)Vaccination – public or individual choice?

To reach a bigger audience, we teamed up with the Society of Innovative Medicine to arrange a series of events, focused on highlighting the importance of science in our everyday life, called "Homo Scientificus". Firstly, we wanted to start a conversation on vaccines. Our main goal was to start a respectful dialogue between the opposing groups - pro- and anti-vaxxers - rather than deepen the separating gap.

For our first discussion of “Homo Scientificus”, we invited four professionals – a Professor of immunology Aurelija Žvirblienė, a pediatrics Professor Vytautas Usonis, and two representatives from the Ministry of Health of the Republic of Lithuania – to give reliable information on vaccination and talk about the measures that were being taken to manage the national measles outbreak.

However, we encountered a problem – all of our participants are openly pro-vaccine, as no representative of the opposing opinion had responded to our invitation. Therefore, there was a risk for the choice of participants to seem negatively selective or even offensive. To prevent the potential misjudgment and ensure inclusivity, two weeks before the event, we developed a form for the general public to send us questions and concerns over vaccination anonymously and shared that form in various anti-vaxxer groups and forums. Understanding where the different opinions stem from is the key to reaching a collective solution.

Based on the huge number of people gathered at the discussion and the positive feedback we received afterwards, we had successfully reached the goal of creating an opportunity for people of opposite opinions to get valid and respectful explanations to their questions.

Photos from (Anti)Vaccination – public or individual choice?

The future of humanity in space. Earth 2.0.

The next discussion of the "Homo Scientificus" series encompassed the future of science. We invited five professionals representing different fields – a neurobiologist, biochemist Prof. Osvaldas Rukšėnas, engineer of biomechanics Gintaras Jonaitis, astrophysicist, futurist Gediminas Beresnevičius, philosopher Jonas Čiurlionis, and physicist Jonas Jurkevičius – to exchange views about the prospects of humanity, the progress of scientific technologies and the opportunities the advance brings. The participants discussed the preparation and ethics behind actions that would be necessary for humans to inhabit space, with a particular focus on genetic engineering and technological innovations.

They emphasized the possible shifts of power, the demand for interdisciplinary solutions, and a philosophical approach to the future of science and humankind. Although the topic might seem niche, the response we got from the participants and the audience proved that most people are eager to learn about the newest, cutting-edge technologies and science innovations, like synthetic biology. We got a lot of positive feedback from science enthusiasts and even professionals with requests of providing more information about synthetic biology, our project, and iGEM.

Photos from The future of humanity in space. Earth 2.0.

BioHackathon'19: Lab App

For the second year in the row, our team organized an international programming contest of life sciences – "BioHackathon'19: Lab App". This type of event is a brilliant way to engage IT specialists to learn about life sciences and use their experience to solve complex issues related to biology.

Hackathon is the only tool that covers 70% of the innovation journey. It starts with discovery, idea generation, and ends with idea conceptualization. The general idea of the hackathon is for a team to create any minimum viable IT product during the 48 hours of coding. During our BioHackathon, each team, including ours, had to develop an app that could tackle the broader issues of the following themes: biosafety and security of data, synthetic biology, lab efficiency, life sciences education.

We invited the Minister of Economy of the Republic of Lithuania, Mr. Virginijus Sinkevičius, to welcome the participants and open our coding fest. The speech was followed by inspirational presentations of Mrs. Eglė Karčiauskė from Startup Lithuania and Mr. Ignas Šlapkauskas from Lithuania Innovation Center. Throughout the BioHackathon, thirteen professional IT, Life Sciences, and Project Management mentors have kindly consulted and guided the participating teams.

BioHackathon was an excellent opportunity to introduce life sciences to people from the IT sector. Participants of different ages and IT or biology knowledge levels exchanged their experience in the context of their collaboration. In total, twelve teams from Lithuania and three iGEM teams from Sweden (iGEM team Stockholm), Germany (iGEM team Marburg), and Denmark (iGEM team Copenhagen) participated in our BioHackathon.

Many different projects were created during the BioHackathon. Team "Unity" created an educational game for pupils to learn life sciences - a laboratory where you need to complete different orders. Another team created an AI-based software to count bacterial colonies. However, the first place winner team "Artificia" created a search engine "Lase" enabled to look for the scientists according to their field of expertise. We have used this tool for finding scientists who can consult our team on BphP1 characteristics. Read more about our team consultation with Dr. Nicholas Ting Xun Ong in Integrated Human Practices.

In order to organize this event, we have implemented good practices from the "BioHackathon's Guidebook" prepared by the Vilnius - Lithuania iGEM team 2018. With the help of everyday feedback from participants and mentors as well as our own experience, we have prepared a new Guidebook version for iGEM teams with new insights and analysis after the event. You can find it here and use it for your own Hackathon.

Download BioHackathon’s Guidebook 2019

Also, the BioHackathon solved another problem that is visible in our university - the separation of international students. Usually, the activities that are targeted at students are held in Lithuanian which creates a language barrier for the foreigners. We decided to take action in integrating them into the local academic community of IT and life sciences and invited international students to participate in our hackathon. We received plenty of positive feedback from the international participants proving that we had reached our goal of connecting IT and biology specialist from different countries and cultures.

"It is my fifth hackathon, and I think this one was the best organized. Starting from the kind support during the event, good atmosphere, and prizes to very thoughtful organizational decisions." - Member of the team Artificia.

"My first project in the Life sciences and it was a great opportunity to learn more about biology. I am glad that I was able to contribute with my coding skills to develop the project." - Monika, has been working in the IT field for 9 years.

"You are our future, and you are worth investing in" - Minister of Economy and Innovation of the Republic of Lithuania Virginijus Sinkevičius.

Photos from BioHackathon’19:LabApp


The great success of the discussions and the BioHackathon, along with the results of the survey, revealed a surprising detail that we failed to observe. Contrary to our initial expectations, many people without scientific expertise have a genuine interest in science and trust scientists' opinions. However, only a few manage to satisfy their curiosity. The main barrier to the engagement of non-experts is the lack of communication skills of scientists. Numerous scientific findings of significant importance are left unexplained to the public. The lack of communication results in the academic community appearing snobbish or superior. The absence of connection between scientists and the public lowers the level of trust people have in science. Lithuanian universities do not provide communication skills training, and science students must rely on their own initiative to gain experience in presenting research or ideas. Not only does this hinder the transmission of scientific knowledge to society, but it also narrows the ability of scientists to present their research or products to entrepreneurs and investors successfully.

To break the walls of closed academic circles and initiate the wider broadcast of scientific ideas, we decided to turn to the students and scientists working at the Life Sciences Center of Vilnius University and came up with a way to improve their public speaking skills.

Sometimes, all that is needed for a great idea to be born is a well-timed Facebook notification. At the time, a professional storyteller Mrs. Milda Varnauskaite was working with exchange students at Vilnius University. As followers of Vilnius University’s social media profile, we were informed about Milda’s Open Stage Storytelling event. That’s when the “aha! moment” happened – we decided to arrange a storytelling workshop with Milda for scientists and science students. Luckily, Milda accepted our proposition to collaborate and adapted her workshop program to bring focus on conveying complex scientific ideas and narratives in an engaging, comprehensible manner.

After sharing the invitation to the workshop, we were flooded by requests to participate. This proved our hypothesis that a demand for public speaking training indeed exists among scientists. However, the workshop allowed a maximum amount of twelve participants. One of our team members, Elzė, participated in the workshop, too, to practice public speaking before our presentation at the Giant Jamboree. The workshop took place for three days, with 14 hours of hands-on work in total. During the first two days, the participants focused on the structure and proper delivery of a story through various exercises and examples given by Milda. The last day comprised creating and perfecting individual stories. We closed the three-day workshop with the grand finale – the Open Stage Storytelling event. The participants of the workshop got the chance to practice their new skills and get real-time feedback from the audience. During the event, they told stories about their work and about the everyday life of a scientist. Two storytellers even included iGEM in their stories! The cozy, warm atmosphere of the story night gathered together individuals of different interests – from theater to science – and created an environment for mutual learning and understanding.

Photos from storytelling workshop and Open Stage Storytelling evening

Education for pupils and teachers

The results of the HP model revealed a distinct factor of a person’s stance against GMOs – their biology teacher’s negative opinion. That seems justifiable – most people first encounter the idea of GMOs at school and the way GMOs are presented strongly influences their later opinion. In Lithuania, genetic engineering is not included in the educational program; very little information is provided in the books and other teaching material. Therefore, it becomes difficult for the teachers to eliminate their personal bias when talking discussing the topic. To vindicate genetic engineering in the minds of biology teachers, we first had to ensure their thorough understanding of the matter. We had the intention of informing the teachers rather than to challenge their opinion on GMOs.

For this purpose, we collaborated with dr. Paulius Lukas Tamošiūnas - an expert on teaching methodologies in the life science field. We joined one of the seminars he organized for a group of biology teachers. There, we presented the techniques, tools, and products of synthetic biology, as well as the principles, advantages, and precautions taken to avoid the risks of genetically modified organisms. The teachers got the chance to do a PCR and find out more about the method that is quotidian in synthetic biology.

Photo from the workshop for biology teachers

The seminar became an opportunity for us to create valuable relations with teachers and get invited to present synthetic biology and iGEM in schools. We visited schools and high-school students’ organizations and gave lectures for all age groups - from first graders to seniors. The pupils showed genuine enthusiasm for learning about genetic engineering and GMOs.

Photos from schools

Photos from summer camp

After representing iGEM and synthetic biology in the international exhibition "Studies 2019" we got a cooperation proposal. The Lithuanian centre of non-formal youth education offers a broad spectrum of training and education services. In a variety of events organized by this institution, our team got invited to be a part of the "XXI Kids science fair" and European Union Contest for Young Scientists events. In these contests, pupils from the first to the last grade prepare poster presentations for their scientific projects. After the presentation session, our team introduced iGEM, organized quiz on synthetic biology, and discussed with the pupils and teachers about the main parts of scientific project methodology.

Photos from "XXI Kids science fair"

Photos from "Studies 2019" fair

Photos from the Lithuanian School Student Union Spring Forum

Photos from European Union Contest for Young Scientists event


All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, so, along with important meetings with our sponsors and in-depth discussions, we decided to play around a little. What's better for an iGEM'er to play with than LEGO bricks? To introduce the public to the concept of synthetic biology and awaken people's curiosity, we got together with skilled carpenters of the Technarium. Technarium is an open, community-operated space in Vilnius, Lithuania, where people with technology-related interests work together.

The team of Technarium helped us to make two bright wooden LEGO bricks - BioBricks. One of the blocks had a spray-painted hashtag on its side. We held a photo contest on Instagram and Facebook, and the participants with the most original pictures won an iGEM-related present. The other BioBrick had an engraved QR code, which took to our website, where we explain the principles of synthetic biology and iGEM.

Photos of the #VilniusBioBricks contest