For the human practices portion of our project we decided to head to the street and initiate conversation with random passersby about their understanding of, and feelings about, synthetic biology. We set up a table at the edge of campus where our College meets the local neighborhood. Borrowing from the Building with Biology kit we chose to attract local residents to our table by having them do hands-on activities and make DNA neckalces.
Our goal for the day was to simply engage the community, introduce them to ideas in synthetic biology and have fun interacting with them to get to a sense of how everyday people might view this kind of research. It is important to note that we ourselves are also very new to these topics and this exercise helped us improve our ability to speak about our project and topics that are generally outside our normal focus of study.
Amanda and Brian showing off a DNA necklace.
Gregory speaks to Rory about DNA and demonstrates how we can visualize DNA from wheat germ.
We recorded our conversations and chose some of our favorite responses to paraphrase here. We certainly received some interesting comments from the public!
Farzana and Gregory in conversation with James.
James stopped by and we asked him how he felt about GMOs. He responded:
When asked about the George Church's lab efforts to de-extinct the Woolly mammoth:
We then asked about organ cloning? He said:
When we told him about our project, he said:
We spoke with a student named Elise about out E.lectro coli project and she responded:
Rory and his dog stopped by to chat.
Rory, when asked about his thoughts on the Woolly mammoth project, and cloning organs for future replacements, was totally for the ideas. He had responded with:
We then mentioned how scientists are now saying that they can genetically modify physical features of babies before they’re born. Rory asked how exactly that could be done, and we explained that DNA is the coding sequence of genes that dictate biological phenotypes, and if you can change just a few letters, you could change everything (or anything). Rory’s response was:
Rikki, who was with Rory responded:
We asked Alfanz and Leslie about the resurrection of the Wooly Mammoth and they had an interesting back and forth: responded:
Brian, Gregory and Amanda speak with Alfanz and Leslie.
They both thought organ cloning is a good idea but wouldn’t be financially available to everyone. Alfanz then said:
After this we had explained our project to them and we mentioned that one of the real world applications would be using our fuel cell as a means to use glucose in a pacemaker so the patient wouldn’t need a replacement. Leslie cleverly asked:
From our efforts we can see that the public has very mixed feelings about technologies that stem from synthetic biology. On one hand, there is a certain "WOW" factor that leaves many feeling like this is a very interesting topic with a vast amount of potential. However, there seems to be an underlying uncertainly and a lack of trust in the potential outcomes of such experimentation. We actually expected this sort of response and realized that the enormous ethical concerns for synthetic biology would not be lost on the layperson.
We were excited to receive so much feed back and that the public's answers really made it apparent that as scientists and engineers we have a large amount of responsibility in this field.
The team speaking to the public.