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Hosting Critical Conversations

• The Science Museum of Minnesota and Minnewashta Elementary

      We had the excellent opportunity to help shape the innovative initiative facilitated by a National Science Foundation grant. Science museums across the nation were extended the opportunity to develop programming focused on the burgeoning field of synthetic biology. The initiative aimed to stimulate/be a catalyst for community dialogue around a topic at risk for public scorn. Through facilitating new and challenging conversations regarding the simplest (microbial diversity) to potentially most controversial (applied synbio in therapeutics and the environment) aspects of genetic engineering, our team tackled a new mode of connecting over one hundred people from the local community to the future implications of synthetic biology and genetic engineering technologies.

      We collaborated to design activity modules that embraced multiple dimensions of public engagement with science (PES) as described by McCallie et al. (2009). This study emphasizes collaboration and equal contributions of public and scientific opinions regarding institutional policy, and most importantly rejects the common heuristic that superior scientific knowledge confers superior judgment in which initiatives should be pursued and defended within synthetic biology. Team members helped design three different activity modules encompassing microbial diversity, prioritizing applications of synthetic biology, and comparing vaccine advancements achievable through synthetic biology and conventional science.

Each activity was carefully designed to encourage conversations from different perspectives: children were engaged through exploring the aromas of different microbes (such as yeast and E. coli strains) used in everyday food products to consider our proximity to biotechnology in our daily routines; people of all ages were prompted to decide which applications of synthetic biology should receive funding; and adults identified the most important traits in an effective vaccine based on synbio and conventional development methods.

Instead of approaching this outreach opportunity as a venue convincing the lay population of the safety, utility, etc. of synthetic biology, our team saw it as a resource for valuating future projects as they connect to community objectives. We found that an overwhelming majority of attendees connected with synbio solutions to cancer treatments and other medicines mostly due to personal experience with these diseases. In terms of environmental issues, there was also significant interest in developing more effective mosquito repellents.

Across both of the advanced modules, people did not seemed dismayed by the concept of using synthetic biology as long as it aligned with the initiatives (like cancer treatment) they felt most strongly about. For future Policies and Practices initiatives, Minnesota hopes to adopt this same conversational and collaborative approach to designing our project and communicating the very real benefits of applied synthetic biology to local communities.

McCallie, E., Bell, L., Lohwater, T., Falk, J. H., Lehr, J. L., Lewenstein, B. V., Needham, C., and Wiehe, B. 2009. Many Experts, Many Audiences: Public Engagement with Science and Informal Science Education. A CAISE Inquiry Group Report. Washington, D.C.: Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE).

Our team also visited two elementary school classrooms at local Minnewashta Elementary to teach second-graders about DNA and the genetic code. Using the ECORI Squad synthetic biology curriculum developed by the 2013 Minnesota iGEM team, we engaged kids in fun activities such as putting together base pair puzzles, beading bracelets using the genetic code, and extracting DNA from fresh strawberries. While students were only about ten years old, most of them had a good grasp on the basic idea of DNA structure and replication. We look forward to utilizing our curriculum again this coming year in Minnewashta and also developing some new educational modules for a couple local high schools, and an Advanced Placement Biology classroom in particular, who have reached out to the Minnesota iGEM team about hosting an introduction to genetic engineering and synthetic biology.

• Round Table Discussion with Industry

      This summer we also met with over twenty R&D professionals at Cargill biotechnology company and at Intrexon to discuss the motives and utility of our overall project. We hosted the meeting as a round table discussion in order to encourage open dialogue and collaboration around the central ideas of the project, and we found the conversations extremely valuable. As opposed to presenting information in a formal manner, we were able to talk openly about the viability of our 2A tag technology and how it would actually be structured in a professional R&D setting (assuming it had strong literature and characterization beforehand), such as the need to implement multiple approaches simultaneously to promote timely progress if one, or more, methods don’t come to fruition.

We also turned to critical conversations about how science is communicated to the public. Many professionals expressed the belief that education does not really make a difference in shaping public perception of advanced science topics, because many people simply don’t have personal investment in gaining expertise in those areas: the most important part is how the science will affect their daily lives. This is why the GMO scare is so tangible to non-scientists, because there is a very visceral reasoning coupled to the food that we consume every day.

In this vein, our conversation with the industry professionals ended up transcending our intentions for critically evaluating the design of our wetlab project and turning us on to broader ideas of engagement, communication, and collaboration both within the scientific community and the lay population. From here, we renewed focus on the tenets and limitations in the iGEM registry and pursued a deeper inquiry into the existing networks and missed connections therein. We also were encouraged to foster our voice on campus and engage students from all disciplines in general discussions about technological progress and the benefits and fears associated with that. In response, we hope to bolster the Synthetic Biology Society (founded by the 2013 Minnesota iGEM team) by reaching out to collaborate on events with other student groups and really implicate biotechnology in students’ considerations of the technological future and their own place within that progression.

• Collaborations

      As important as open source is, another theme that iGEM promotes is collaboration. We tried our best to help our fellow iGEM teams in whatever way we could.

We were able to help mentor the very first Egyptian team with regards to Synthetic Biology, BioBricks, and their experimental design, as well as sending them outreach materials and the Interactive Educational Curriculum our team presents to local schools year-round.

We contributed a protocol for yeast homologous recombination for cloning for the Eindhoven team’s Cloning Guide for future iGEM teams' use.

We also contributed surveys for the following iGEM teams: Aachen, Michigan Software, Nankai, NEFU_China, Paris-Saclay, Santa Clara, Seoul South Korea, and Stanford-Brown.