Human Practices and Outreach
Summer Science Research Institute
The Summer Science Research Institute (SSRI) connects New Haven high school students with research labs at Yale University. The SSRI invites guest lecturers to present Friday lunchtime workshops that supplement the students’ work. On July 24, Lionel, Holly, Jessica, and Erin had the opportunity to give a brief overview of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the controversy surrounding them, and our own summer project. After quickly reviewing the history of synthetic biology and its applications in biofuels and agriculture, we dove into a discussion of the ethical issues related to the synthetic production of artemisinin, an antimalarial drug derived from the wormwood plant. Students compared the economic and human consequences of producing artemisinin traditionally and synthetically. They weighed the importance of stable pharmaceutical prices and accessibility to medicine against the cost of driving thousands of farmers out of work. Then we transitioned into a discussion of five important ethical considerations that guide our assessment of emerging technology — public beneficence, responsible stewardship, intellectual freedom and responsibility, democratic deliberation, and justice and fairness — and how they might apply to the production of biofuels using microbes. Finally, we explained our workflow for porting MAGE into cyanobacteria and rhizobium. The SSRI students asked many great questions about the MAGE cycle, especially regarding the synthetic oligos that are repeatedly introduced into the cells. It was enlightening and gratifying for us to explain our project to our peers who were interested in research but hadn’t really heard of synthetic biology or GMOs (besides Monsanto).
Erin, Holly, and Jessica presenting the team's project at SSRI!
A laypeople's Synthetic Biology
On September 17th, Dan gave an informal “science café” night at the Center for Engineering, Innovation, and Design at Yale University. The premise of a Science Café activity is providing an opportunity for the general public to learn and discuss a complex scientific topic in an informal manner. Dan’s presentation was focused on showcasing the applications and implications of genetic engineering and Synthetic Biology in a relaxed and non-technical way. This way, even laypeople were able to understand and attend the event. This presentation was an adapted version of the SSRI presentation, with a similar outline but leaving out the ethical considerations section for time’s sake. During the presentation, Dan gave a quick summary of the history of genetic engineering, and then proceeded to delve into three important applications of genetic engineering: Golden Rice, Artemisinin, and Algal Biofuels. In talking about Golden Rice and Artemisinin, Dan made sure to highlight two common themes among the problems, Vitamin A deficiency and Malaria respectively, which Golden Rice and Synthetic Artemisinin aim to solve: prohibitive cost of a cure, and lack of sufficient infrastructure for a non-biology-based solution. For example, providing Vitamin A pills to Vitamin-A-deficient people in Southeast Asia is impossible due to the cost and logistics of distribution in third-world countries. In discussing biofuels, Dan showed how much more viable algal biofuels were than corn or grain ethanol, and why companies are investing millions of dollars into the technology. The presentation was around 40 minutes long, and included members of the Yale Community.
In August, Yale iGEM sent out an anonymous survey to the iGEM community to gauge how open and welcoming the iGEM community is to LGBTQ individuals. iGEM is an ideal organization to survey as it is a small community with members who come from various backgrounds. The results of the survey show a large distribution in how members perceived their work environment. While the number of respondents (n = 13) is not enough for the data analysis to be significant, the responses still point to a general desire to improve the iGEM community in terms of its treatment of LGBTQ members.
The questions asked where the following:
1. I consider my sexual orientation or gender identity to be an important aspect of who I am.
2. I would prefer to be open about my sexual orientation or gender identity to my team.
3. I have felt uncomfortable disclosing my sexual orientation or gender identity to members of my team.
4. I feel like my team is supportive and welcoming to LGBTQ+ members.
5. iGEM provides a safe environment for LGBTQ+ identified participants.
6. iGEM adequately addresses the needs of LGBTQ+ identified participants.
7. iGEM can improve its dialogue on marginalized identities, including race, gender, sexuality and socioeconomic status.
In a recent New York Times article titled “Why Is Science So Straight?” Manil Suri points to some cultural standards which lead people in STEM to avoid or ignore issues concerning LGBTQ and other identities.
He writes: “L.G.B.T. workers in STEM-related fields report significantly lower job satisfaction, both when compared to other STEM workers and to L.G.B.T. workers in other fields. Such discontent — and invisibility — can contribute to a field’s reputation for being unwelcoming. As a result, young lesbians and gays might sell themselves short, aiming for occupations with little use for their talents, but in which they see more people like themselves.”
The results of the survey support his statement. From the graph, more than 50% of respondents feel their sexual orientation is an important part of their identity, and likewise more than half of respondents also want iGEM to improve its discussion on how identity impacts one’s scientific career.
When asked what would foster a more accepting community, one respondent answered, “General community support is one of the best things to foster inclusion (but maybe is the hardest to achieve)…For iGEM specifically, I think talking about these issues and bringing it out in the open will help make a supportive environment overall and at the Jamboree.”