As one of the rather few groups involved in synthetic biology and as the only iGEM team in Finland, we had two major goals in outreach: First, we wanted to increase knowledge of synthetic biology and its possibilities among the general public, students, educators, researchers as well as in industry and business. Second, we aimed to increase awareness of iGEM among students, researchers and educators as potential future iGEM participants, instructors and mentors. Furthermore, we promoted iGEM to industry, business and non-governmental organizations as potential supporters of future iGEM teams.
To promote synthetic biology to the general public, we approached the people behind the science festival Thinkfest, organized by the University of Helsinki in early September. Thankfully, we were given a major role in organizing a Science picnic, an event oriented mainly towards families. We brought with us microscopes to check out gram-stained bacteria with, amazing glow-in-the-dark bacteria and even a gene gun! Children could also colour their own superhero bacterium and tell us its special ability, or play Flappy Coli previously developed by Aalto-Helsinki. We also had the chance to give a talk on synthetic biology, its possibilities, and our project for an audience of general public in the center of Helsinki during the event.
As the only iGEM team in Finland we considered inspiring new iGEM teams a priority in our outreach work. Other Nordic countries of similar size also have more than one team, so this should be achievable in Finland as well. Norway has 1 team per 2.6 million inhabitants, Sweden 1 team per 2.5 million inhabitants and Denmark 1 team per 1.9 million inhabitants, whereas our team alone currently represents all the 5.2 million inhabitants of Finland. To get more teams next year and strengthen the iGEM community in Finland we contacted biotechnology researchers in two major Finnish universities outside Helsinki. Thankfully, researchers from Tampere University of Technology and the University of Turku welcomed us to give a presentation for their students and faculty members. We visited the universities and talked about synthetic biology, iGEM, our project and offered our help if anyone was interested in starting an iGEM team of their own. We also discussed with the local researchers about their synthetic biology projects and were given a tour in their facilities. We're confident we'll be seeing more teams in Finland next year!
Besides inspiring new iGEM teams, we will continue to actively promote iGEM and synthetic biology in our own universities, giving presentations to students in both the University of Helsinki and Aalto University to ensure an ever growing number of applicants for the Aalto-Helsinki iGEM team.
In addition to university students, we reached out to high schools to increase awareness of synthetic biology and iGEM. Our team members went to talk to students and teachers of Mäkelänrinne High School and Viikki High School. We also mentioned the high school track in hopes of inspiring students and high schools to form teams of their own. In addition we met with a dozen high school students in training for the International Biology Olympiad. These students were chosen for the training through a nationwide biology competition, thus representing some of the most motivated high school students in the whole country. We gave a presentation to them about synthetic biology, iGEM, our project and our study fields. We also heard about their training and interests. After presentations, we were very glad to notice how enthusiastic they were, bombarding us with questions about our project, synthetic biology and our studies. We likely met some future iGEM participants that evening!
Our team members also attended a workshop on the future of chemical industry, organized by the Chemical Industry Federation of Finland, an organization that represents a large portion of Finnish industry, including the biotechnology companies. The Foresight Project workshop was arranged by AlternativeFutures and included brainstorming new ideas for current chemical industry and for the future, which were then rated by the level of impact and the requirements to implementation.
To increase awareness of synthetic biology and iGEM among the general public, students, researchers and industry we approached a variety of magazines and newspapers, as well as other media outlets. We were also interviewed on the national radio and were invited to take part in a radio series on synthetic biology, to be aired in the summer of 2016. The articles we were featured on as well as the radio interview can be found below.
Already in the very beginning of Aalto-Helsinki 2015 we built a presentable website for our project, even before we had our project idea. We started searching for supporters early on, and we thought website would be a good way to shortly present our project to potential sponsors and other people interested in our project. The site shortly described in both Finnish and English what synthetic biology and iGEM is about, as well as our goals and our team. As the project progressed, we included information on our project and our supporters.
In creating the wiki, we had several goals we had to balance. We wanted it to be simple and clean, but also beautiful and pleasant to browse. The wiki needs to be easy to navigate, a task much more challenging than we initially thought. Visitors need to be able to get a good overview of our project with little effort, but on the other hand, we need to have every aspect of our project thoroughly covered for those looking for more detailed information.
We started early and made step-by-step schedules for the wiki development to ensure that we had time to think through the design, structure and the various other details in wiki development. We considered many different kinds of structures, including having fewer but larger categories and having a walkthrough-wiki structure, somewhat similar to SDU Denmark. After plenty of planning and discussion we decided to go with eight categories with a summary of each category on its main page and the details in the subpages.
We kept active on social media throughout the summer. Our team page on Facebook has about 500 likes and on Twitter we have over 350 followers. While it is great to see how many international followers we have, it is especially wonderful how much interest there is towards synthetic biology in Finland, reflected on our likes and followers from Finland. For people to be able to get a better sense of what we’re doing, we published a blog on Tumblr. On the blog we posted updates on our progress, daily tasks and on special events, among other things. Additionally, each week a team member profile was published.
For us to succeed in our project it was absolutely crucial to find partners. Without them, there would have been little we could have achieved. Thankfully, we already had the four first big steps in forming an iGEM team covered by the 2014 team and their mentor Markus Linder: we had the students forming the team, Markus as our mentor, a lab bench to work at and the registration fee taken care of. But no, we did not run out of things to do!
We quickly proceeded to find more partners. We first contacted our own universities for support as well as to raise awareness of synthetic biology and our project. Early on, we met with Rector Jukka Kola and Vice-Rector Keijo Hämäläinen from University of Helsinki to present our project. It was super-encouraging to see how interested they were in our project and to hear that they would support us. We also met with two Aalto University Deans, from the School of Science and the School of Chemical Engineering. They were also really fascinated about iGEM and our major supporters. We were in contact with different Faculties and Departments in the University of Helsinki. All were very supportive, and Faculty of Science, Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences and the Department of Food and Environmental Sciences also helped us with covering our registration fees and travel costs. We were not only glad about receiving help, but it was also great to see how the two universities really came together for a common cause.
In addition to contacting the different universities and faculties, we had lots of contacts to research groups and individual researchers across different disciplines, from philosophy to biotechnology and biochemistry to physics. Many of the researchers we contacted we also met personally, including Olli Ikkala, Merja Penttilä, Pauli Kallio, Tarja Knuuttila and others. We discussed our ideas, often heard about their research, sometimes collaborated or got practical help from them. Each contact we had also helped us raise awareness of synthetic biology and iGEM in the Finnish scientific community.
To contact companies, organizations and foundations, we formed a partnership squad within our team. In this work our goal was not just to raise money to cover our costs, but also to raise awareness of synthetic biology within companies and NGOs. Countless applications were written, and we indeed managed to get support from outside our universities as well. Besides this, the contacts we had gave us opportunities to reach out to a wider audience outside academia. For instance, the contacts we had led to our team members taking part in a workshop organized by the Chemical Industries Finland and writing a blog post about synthetic biology and our project on the website of Bioeconomy, a Finnish government program promoting usage of renewable resources to achieve sustainable development. We also contacted the Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT), conveniently located across the street. They helped us a lot with their technical expertise by giving us access to their special equipment.