Human Practices in iGEM Stockholm

Photo: Gunnar Ask and Karolinska Institutet

Human practices in synthetic biology
Ethics, entrepreneurship and education

Science and technology is not only research and engineering. As researchers and engineers we must interact with society and reflect on the consequences of our work. In iGEM, this work falls into the category of human practices. We have focused on three areas - ethics, entrepreneurship and education.

Ethics: How are negative results treated in iGEM?

When we researched older wikis to find inspiration and information for our own project we were impressed by what some iGEM teams had done and eager to build on their accomplishments. However, we soon started noticing a pattern of mixing ideas with results. This sometimes made it difficult to find results and assess what the team had actually accomplished.

We became curious about how the iGEM community perceives and treats negative results and decided to investigate.

We sent out a survey to teams registered for iGEM in 2015, asking them about negative results and their experience using old wikis.

The survey shows that iGEM teams think negative results are important and discuss them within their team. On the other hand, a lot of teams worry about how the judges will look at negative results. Despite this, most teams say they will include negative results on their wiki.

Nearly all iGEM teams use wikis from previous years for inspiration and information. However, like us, many had difficulties separating ideas from results. They also struggled to find significant data to support the results. 1/3 teams have tried to reproduce claims made by other teams but were unable to do so.

Wiki Evaluation

We also evaluated the wikis of 19 overgraduate teams that competed in iGEM in 2013 and 2014. We put particular focus on how clearly information, ideas, experiments and results were presented.

The evaluation showed that most wikis had presented and connected their ideas, experiments and results clearly. Significant results were not as easy to distinguish. Meanwhile, negative results were almost non-existent. Less than 1 in 10 teams included negative results on their wiki.

We used the results from the survey and the wiki evaluation to develop a set of wiki guidlines; the "iGEM Stockholm wiki pledge". We also compiled brief recommendations for how future iGEM teams and the iGEM Foundation can improve transparency and representation of negative results within iGEM. Read our wiki pledge and recommendations here.

Read about how iGEM wikis can become more transparent in our report on transparency and negative results in the iGEM community.

Entrepreneurship: How to bring ABBBA to the market

In the future, ABBBA may enable physicians to diagnose early stages of cancer. In our report on future entrepreneurship, we want to build the case that ABBBA has the potential to improve cancer prognosis, which affects 14 million new patients every year. Here, we envision how we would bring ABBBA to market if we turned the project into a company.

A complete case for how to bring ABBBA to the market is in our entrepreneurship report.

Figure 1. ABBBA development process: Business model - Revenue model, Pricing, Average account size and/or lifetime value, Sales & distribution model, Customer/pipeline list.

The company will start by stating the proof of concept of the bacterial system using a well known biomarker, HER2, and then diversifying into lung cancer as it is the largest contributor to new cancer diagnoses and to cancer deaths. iGEM Stockholm’s go to market strategy considers gaining trust among healthcare professionals by providing a clinically proven and cost effective method.

Correspondingly to the business model, a business model canvas according to Osterwalder has been created for the company. The business model for iGEM Stockholm describes how the company creates and provides value for the target customer segments and users. While users are defined as patients, laboratory technicians and physicians, customers are somewhat broader category. This group consists of the payers, meaning private and public hospitals and laboratories. Correspondingly to having various customers and users, the value provided by the ABBBA product will be appreciated differently. For patients, ABBBA will detect cancer at an earlier stage of the disease and thus, provide higher likelihood of survival rate and improve quality of life. For doctors this would mean that they increase their patients' survival rate, and that they can take new patients as they discharge recovered ones. How we would develop this plan is detailed in the entrepreneurship report.

Education: Spreading the word

We wanted to engage with the public and discuss synthetic biology, and we choose high school students as our focus group. Communicating science to someone who is already interested is quite an easy task. But to establish a dialogue between the uninterested public and the team, a catalyst is sometimes needed. To help future teams light this spark we have written a guide for how to catalyze this interaction resulting in a higher yield of mutual communication.

Step 1: It is important that it is easy to take in the knowledge. Making science understandable for the general public is the first key factor.

Step 2: Uninterested public has to associate science with something they already like or a fun activity.

Step 3: The final step is to encourage them to do something creative with their new knowledge, for example letting them use science as a tool to do something that's close to them or relatable.

With those steps in mind we planned and carried out an activity with the aim of creating a dialogue between us and groups of the public without any prior interest in science or synthetic biology.

Presenting iGEM projects

From the left: Mona, Karol and Karl presenting.

What did we do?

To test these three steps, we decided on an educational session with high school students. We sent out emails to teachers and asked them if we could come and visit. Two schools were chosen on the basis of their compatibility with our schedule. The educational session was divided into two parts: one informative and one experimental. In the presentation, we made references to popular culture to make it easier to understand (Step 1). We wanted them to associate science to something that they think is fun and relaxed (Step 2). To complete the session we showed an easy experiment they would be able to perform at home with regular things from the kitchen (Step 3). The experiment was to extract DNA from different fruits. For this, we divided the students into smaller groups allowing more communication and small-talk.

Trying out DNA extraction

Trying out DNA extraction

What did we accomplish?

The best thing was that both, the iGEM team and students-teachers group, had a funny and active day, but also learned about science in detail. They were asking questions, participating in the discussion and listening to what we had to say. When we did the experiment we got many questions about how they could take this further. The dialogue with the students was not only about synthetic biology but also science in general and we got the impression that some of the students got a newly awakened interest in science.

What did we learn?

The main thing we took with us was the experience presenting what science is about and making people interested. It would have been interesting to try this in a different setting with a bigger target group of different ages to see what would happen. For instance, meeting people that are not in an educational environment and see if we can get a similar response.

Our greatest success was the experiment. Many had done DNA extraction in biology class before but it surprised them that they could do it with things they could find in their own kitchen.

One thing that could be improved was step 1. We did not manage to break the information down to a simple enough level and we overestimated their knowledge. We could have worked better with the references and gone further into the basics to make it easier to follow.

Us with the class

Us with the class!