Public Engagement

Public Engagement Introduction

Our greatest human practises achievement this year was the establishment and maintenance of the Think of the PLoSibilities blog in partnership with PLoS Journals. Over the years, PLoS Pathogens and other PLoS family journals have led the way in open-access publishing, ensuring that the latest research reaches a global audience, without restrictions. With shared values, and a belief that all research should be openly available for anyone to access, PLOS and the iGEM Foundation have already worked in partnership to publish iGEM team synthetic biology projects, via the PLoS-iGEM Collection. Open-access publishing provides excellent opportunities to reach lay people, however, many of the articles are packed with scientific jargon. Our iGEM team wanted to help extend the reach of PLoS articles by writing engaging, scientifically-accessible summaries for the general public. We recognized that clear lay science writing is key to engaging the general public and promoting science literacy. Prior to each publication, the blog posts are reviewed to ensure that there are of high quality. We have recruited writers from our team with diverse backgrounds such as computer science, microbiology, and immunology. Over the past several months, Think of the PLoSibilities has gained a following, with 300+ international readers and even re-posting to other blogs. Moving forward, we plan on growing the blog. We have used social media and face-to-face outreach in multiple undergraduate classes at Dalhousie University in an attempt to grow our base of contributors. Furthermore, we have begun discussions with science communication professors at the university to establish the blog as part of the curriculum. We plan to report back to PLoS leadership in the coming months, to thank them for their support, and to demonstrate the value of Think of the PLoSibilities. We are also planning on writing a post for the PLoS “Speaking of Medicine Community Blog” to highlight the benefits of journal clubs. By sharing our experience at the Giant Jamboree in creating and implementing Think of the PLoSibilities, we hope that other iGEM teams will follow our lead in future years, creating a network of blogs under the PLoS banner. Our team would like to play a lead role in coordinating these science communication activities.

In 2014, a survey by the Canadian Council of Academics found that 42% of Canadians had a basic level of scientific literacy. This statistic put Canada first in terms of scientific literary amongst 35 countries with similar available data, but it shows that half of all Canadians are not able to read and interpret science-themed newspaper articles. Following these results, the Canadian Council of Academics made three suggestions to boost Canadian science culture: increase informal learning opportunities, increase inclusion of minorities, and increase scientist’s communication and public engagement. The human practises and public engagement portion of our project was formulated upon recognizing that there is a need to start open conversations with the public and to provide science-based educational opportunities for everyone.

Science communication and literary are weaved throughout our entire iGEM project and thus it is not surprising that our theme has also manifested within our public engagement initiatives. We developed three initiatives for public engagement this year: science communication, education, and media. In each of these sections our goal was to encourage conversation surrounding science, facilitate learning, and to engage populations that may not have regular access to science. In all aspects of our public engagement we attempted to keep in mind the three recommendations from the Canadian Council of Academics.

For the communication aspect of our engagement program we sought to reach a larger audience of people not necessarily within our own circles. This is why we started the Think of the PLoSibilities blog. The blog also allows students to practise their own science communication by writing blog posts that get edited by faculty members. Since inception, PLoSibilities has reached over 300 people and it has a regular audience from around the world. While we are not certain about the age or gender demographics viewing the blog, we are pleased that it has such a global spread. In addition to practising communication on the blog, we participated in the iGEM-PLoS Collection following the jamboree in 2016. From this collection we have morphed our iGEM 2016 project into a manuscript currently being reviewed by PLoS for publication. We are eagerly waiting for the manuscript to be published.

For our education programs, we interacted with a variety of students of all ages. The purpose of these programs was to provide activities and topics that fostered curiosity and promoted scientific inquiry. Over the course of the summer, we learned how to communicate complicated scientific concepts, and how to lead discussions so that everyone can be involved. These were probably some of the most fun and successful activities we held throughout the year. To quote a young participant at the Discovery Center during the strawberry DNA extraction, “science is cool.”

For our media program, we engaged with a diverse group of agencies to reach a broader audience that may not have been previously aware of our team. The Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation Journal and Genome Atlantic were two of our financial supporters whose articles were read by their immediate viewership. The Chronicle Herald is a local newspaper and The Signal is the King’s University Journalism Radio Program which both research very diverse audiences. It was here that we practised effectively communicating our project using the skills outlined in our integrated practises section.

Our public engagement and human practises should not be thought of as a separate entity from our wet lab/dry lab project. In our engagement efforts, we not only continued our conversations with programs we established in previous years (ex. SuperNOVA), but began conversations with new outlets such as the Discovery Center and SHAD Valley. These programs, however, were not just for the benefit of the participants but for us too. Over the course of this project, we have learned and practised being effective science communicators whether that be through the PLoSibilities blog, the manuscript, the various interviews, and the interactions with the public. We hope to keep these conversations going to ensure that the public stays informed and that we continue to better ourselves as communicators. With 82% of surveyed Canadians saying that they “would like to know more about science and how it affects our world,” we have a mighty mission in front of us, but we look forward to being part of making Canadian science literate.


PLoS iGEM Collection Since last years jamboree, the Dalhousie iGEM has been interested in integrating science communication into our own project. For this reason, we were eager to take part in the PLoS iGEM Collection following the 2016 jamboree. In the process of writing our iGEM report, we learned a lot about writing scientific papers, and peer-reviewing papers. After the review process, we received a great comment that we should attempt to make our iGEM report into a full PLoS publication. We didn’t want to let this incredible opportunity to go to waste and so we modified our iGEM report into a paper for publication. To date, we have received comments from reviewers and are in the process of responding to the comments for resubmission!

PLoSibilties Blog In partnership with PLoS, we began the PLoSibilties blog to bridge the gap between open-access journals and the lay audience. Scientific jargon in research articles often limits how accessible science is to the general public. One goal of the blog was to provide a lay audience with the important information from science publications such as: What is already known? What are the results?  What are possible future experiments? Why is the research important? Why should we care? How do the results change the field? The other goal of PLoSibilities was to give undergraduate students (not limited to iGEM team members) the opportunity to practise writing lay summaries for a non-scientific audience, as well as to publish their work on an online platform. The blog has a readership of over 200 people from around the world. While this initiative began due to iGEM, we hope to continue it throughout the rest of the year and recruit more student writers from outside of iGEM.


Shad Valley We had a blast hosting SHAD Valley for the first time! Approximately 20 students joined us for an afternoon filled with synthetic biology, ethics, and DNA extractions. The Dalhousie Biochemistry Department very kindly provided us with all the necessary reagents to do the extractions. The students not only got to extract their own DNA from cheek cells, but also got to take the DNA home with them in double helix pendant necklace.

SuperNOVA—Catalyst Camp & Innovators Camp Continuing the partnership we established last year with SuperNOVA, we ran two workshops targeting two different age groups: the Catalyst Camp (grades 10-12) and the Innovators Camp (grades 7-9). In a jammed pack 1.5-hour workshop, the Catalyst Camp students learned about the basics of synthetic biology (e.g. DNA, protein, cloning, etc.) as well as extracted DNA from the cheek cells. They got to keep their DNA in double helix pendant necklace (these necklaces were a hit!). In addition, we talked to students about E. coli to the slides ahead of time so that the students did not studying at Dalhousie and future opportunities to join our iGEM team. For the Innovators Camp, we created a different workshop to highlight another important aspect of synthetic biology… the organisms! The workshop began with students sitting through a brief presentation about the wonders of bacteria, and then it was gram-stain time. To ensure that our students were safe, we had them wear gloves and lab coats. In addition, we fixed the have to turn on or use the Bunsen burners. We also wanted to show the students gram-positive bacteria, but were limited for time, so we received a prepared slide of Streptococcus from the diagnostic microbiology lab at the local hospital. The Streptococcus was given to us as a blood smear so we got the additional benefit of showing students what red blood cells look like!

Discovery Center—Open house The Discovery Center is Nova Scotia’s hand-on science facility and every Wednesday admission is free to the general public. On a cold dark evening in September we eagerly arrived at the Innovation Lab in the Discovery Center and opened our minds and our experiments to the public. In addition to speaking to the public about iGEM and our project we organized two hands-on activities that accompanied our description about DNA and cells. The first activity involved extracting DNA from strawberries and bananas. The younger members of the public had a great time squashing the fruit and were very surprised to learn that the snot-like substance at the end was DNA. The second activity involveCanadian Council of Academicsd looking at dog kidney cells under the microscope. A lot of the children who came by were in awe to see cells and couldn’t believe that cells are so small! We did an additional event on a quite Sunday morning at the Discovery Center focusing this time on iGEM and our project.

#summerofscienceCAN We participated in the #summerofscienceCAN initiative which encourages local members of parliament (MP) to engage with the research occurring in their ridings. We met and discussed our project with our MP, Andy Fillmore. In addition, we gave him a tour of our lab! It was amazing to be part of this federal campaign.

Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation (DMRF) We ran a booth at a DMRF event for Dalhousie medical alumni where we talked about our project, iGEM, and synthetic biology. Families of alumni joined us in extracting DNA from strawberries and visualizing fluorescent proteins expressed in BSL-1 bacteria. These two activities accompanied our conversation about DNA and synthetic biology. In addition, we talked with young individuals who were interested in science in general and answered questions from the public about current scientific technologies. There was a lot of interest in synthetic biology and the ethics following such exploration. We tried our best to explain the moral responsibilities that we have as scientists.


Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation “Dalhousie students leverage medical research for renewable energy”
Genome Atlantic: “From porcupine scat to industrial bioremediation: Dalhousie U’s synthetic biology buffs prepare for global competition”
Chronicle Herald “Dalhousie gene research team seeks international competition gold”
King’s Journalist “What do porcupine poop, wood, and ethanol have in common?”


Chung, E. (2014, August 28). Canadians' science literacy, engagement may be highest in world. Retrieved October 31, 2017, from