Team:ManhattanCol Bronx/HP/Silver

Human Practices

The View on the Street

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.

Interesting conversations and responses

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:

  • “In all honesty, I believe in the future. We might need it, because the population is increasing. So in a way yeah and in a way no. The reason I say no is because I hate farm fish. I think it was created in a lab. So I feel it has its benefits, but at the same time I feel it has its downside. I’m more of an organic person but I think it will be necessary in the future.”

When asked about the George Church's lab efforts to de-extinct the Woolly mammoth:

  • “No I don’t think they should be doing that, because next thing, they’ll be cloning us.”

We then asked about organ cloning? He said:

  • “We'll see it's the borderline between that, a heart, a kidney, a liver whatever you may need, it will turn into a business thing, used to make money and profit, a lot of people won’t be able to afford it, unless you’re like Bill Gates.”

When we told him about our project, he said:

  • “Well it’s a positive if you could turn something like E. coli into a good thing. I would support that, it’s for a good cause. That’s great Power! I could turn my lights on!”

We spoke with a student named Elise about out E.lectro coli project and she responded:

  • “When will I be able to buy stocks for your product?”


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:

  • “That is fresh! That’s what’s up! That would save so many lives!”
  • “But I feel like the ethical stance against that would be like 'are scientists now playing God?' ”

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:

  • “Yea, that’s crazy! It’s cool, but then it’s like a drive through, like 'hi, I’d like brown hair and blue eyes. Like, let me get a number 4, blue eyes please?' And then if they get the wrong order it’s like 'you messed it up! This is my child!'".

Rikki, who was with Rory responded:

  • “what if the child comes out deformed?” And Rory jumped in: "yea, how do you know for sure that it will work?”

We asked Alfanz and Leslie about the resurrection of the Wooly Mammoth and they had an interesting back and forth: responded:

  • Leslie: “but why? We wouldn't really benefit from this in any way.”
  • Alfanz: “I’m sure there’s some kind of benefit,”
  • Leslie: “Like what … we could eat it?”
  • Alfanz: “Okay maybe not a Woolly Mammoth, just get an island and recreate Jurassic Park.”


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:

  • “A good thing about this though would be that there would be no chance of your body rejecting the organ.”

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:

  • “But how would that work for diabetic patients who lack glucose, that would be harmful to them. I mean it would work for patients who have an excess of glucose.”

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.


The team speaking to the public.


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