Wang Yong is a professor of Institute of Plant Physiology & Ecology, Shanghai Institute of Biology Science. Dr. Wang obtained his Ph.D. degree in MIT in 2006, so he has witnessed the exciting bloom of synthetic biology and iGEM during 2003-2006. In our conversation, we discussed several topics, including the history and future of synthetic biology and iGEM as well as our proposed automatic platform.
Could you tell us your experience as a witness of the development of iGEM? How do you think about iGEM?
“After obtaining a master degree in Biomedical Engineering in 1999, I found a job in industry. In 2002, I was so impressed by the fast development of genetic engineering and felt a new era of biology is coming, though the word of “synthetic biology” wasn’t invented yet at that time. Without hesitation, I applied for and enrolled in a Ph.D. program in biology at MIT. The iGEM means a lot to me since it reminds me of my Ph.D. training and I appreciate its aim and philosophy. Before iGEM was initiated, few people could imagine that undergraduate students can form a team and finish a research project. Yet some undergrads can join a lab where graduate students and postdocs dominant, it’s challenging to run a lab with undergraduates only. There were not many people believe that college freshmen and sophomores could discuss and frame a research project, and finally work it out. With the success of iGEM competition for so many years, people no longer doubt the creativity and execution ability of undergrads.”
What’s your view on educating synthetic biology to the public?
“Science is not for the scientists only. It should be recognized by the public and should be extended for more education purpose.. Synthetic biology makes sense to biologists. However, the public may have a different impression of these two words. I don’t know what they would think about synthetic biology - Transgene organisms? Evil scientists who create freaks in the lab? That’s what you need to figure out by survey and interviews. First, you need to know what are the misunderstandings about synthetic biology, and then you can design your education to address those misunderstandings. Moreover, you need to be very clear about your opinion and make sure your education material is interesting enough to attract attentions.”
The philosophy of our projects is to make synthetic biology available to more people . what’s your opinion or suggestions on this ambition?
“The iGEM itself is a great success of promoting synthetic biology research, it brought undergraduates and even high school students to this area. You might have heard of the concept of “Maker”, those teenagers participate in mechanic and electronic engineering by interest in the west coast of US, and some of them become notable innovators and entrepreneurs later. What I want to emphasize is that for those makers, modularized and simplified tools like Arduino and breadboard played an important role. These tools and modules make the innovation progress much easier since nothing needs to be built de novo. Your ambition seems like setting up a modularized tool for “Bio-Makers”, so I suggest your team to test your product by an open trial to the public. Build your system as simple and easy-understanding as you can, and let those people with few synthetic biology knowledge and experience use it. From the open test, you can expect to receive useful feedbacks to improve your system as well.