Nourishing Synthetic Biology in the Cradle of Culture
As the first collegiate team in Greece, we've encountered immense difficulties during our project development, as synthetic biology is dramatically underdeveloped in our country on the academic as well as the community level with public perceptions remaining in flux.
For our outreach vision, we’ve zeroed in on two goals:
- spark interdisciplinary student innovation intertwined with ethical debating around the world
- expand public awareness regarding synthetic biology applications on human health, on a global scale by using intuitive learning methods and visual narratology principles
We initiated four parallel campaigns, for the aforementioned goals:
Oxynous Theme Interactive WorkshopOxynous Theme is an exciting educational initiative for High School students, with the goal to encompass student interests regarding scientific programs not limited to the curriculum. We were excited to be invited by Mr. Dimitris Siapkas, to present our work in a simplistic manner to a inhomogeneous group of students aged 14-18. We informed the students about the field of Synthetic Biology, its potential applications, our own project and the advancement that we already made towards achieving our goals. Through gamified activities, we explained the main sub-projects of the wet and dry lab and showcased quorum sensing using party favor noise makers (inspired by the “Quorum Sensing Activity” of the MIT/HHMI Teachers’ Workshop 2011) and an electrical circuit that simulates our RNAi classifier’s function, by using simple logic gates and LEDs. After the main event, we discussed with the students about our engagement with the project, decision making and problem-handling. The students also provided us with feedback on our presentation and on their understanding of Synthetic Biology, by filling a survey. Our most valuable feedback was that they increased their Synthetic Biology knowledge, however they also expressed their wish to participate and/or organise independent student-run research projects.Everyone was enthusiastic about the experience and we were more than happy to take part in such an event, that introduces the students to a fresh mindset, that of a team-oriented, interdisciplinary approach to hard problems.3rd Meeting of Youth Organizations organized by the General Secretariat for Lifelong Learning, Greek Ministry of Education & ResearchRepresentatives of the Greek Ministry of Education & Research gathered university student teams of Thessaloniki, state agents and major social partners at national policy level, aiming to get a better understanding of the voluntary and research actions. We got a better grasp of the initiatives in our city and joined forces to reach out to a larger audience. The representatives were more than excited to learn about our efforts to promote interdisciplinary research in Greece, such as exposing high school and university students to fundamental Synthetic Biology principles. They encouraged us to keep at our efforts and we discussed on how to kick-start a campaign next year to visit schools all around the country. Last but not least, we engaged in in-depth discussions on the possibility to secure financial support from the Ministry of Education & Research for the next iGEM team, thus rendering participation in iGEM for Greek teams somewhat like a tradition.
AUTH Student Week PresentationOur first public appearance was during the Student Week organised by Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (AUTH) back in May. Student Week stretches across multiple days, where AUTH teams can participate and present their work, which can include theatrical plays, concerts, sports, painting exhibitions as well as many cultural activities. However, scientific teams have exponentially established their presence throughout the years.
We had the pleasure to present our initiative and progress to an audience of roughly 60 students who warmly welcomed us, appeared to be quite interested in Synthetic Biology and actively participated by asking questions or having conversations with team members directly after our presentation.
That was our first major event and we received positive feedback from all those enthusiastic students, that were intrigued both by our innovative approach to cancer treatment as well as by Synthetic Biology, as they were not familiar with the term, let alone its principles.InnovationLab: iGEM Greece organised by IEEE EMBS Student Chapter AUTH and The Triple Helix AristotleAfter our presentation in Student Week, we were invited to participate in the final InnovationLab for the academic year of 2016-17.The Triple Helix is the world’s largest, completely student-run, non-profit organization, that aims to communicate the importance of science to the public, by taking an interdisciplinary approach to the evaluation of its role and impact on society. InnovationLabs are events that bring students in touch with startups, inventors and accomplished researchers, inspiring them to start the next big thing, in a way that they would advance humanity and influence the world. We decided to hold two workshops during the event; one for dry lab oriented students and one for wet lab enthusiasts.During the dry lab workshop in May we went into detail of our then-only analysis; that of miRNA differential expression analysis and explained the algorithm behind it as well as the basic principles of modeling. We presented them with a simple example of a stoichiometric matrix that we turned into differential equations. Moreover, our workshop included:
-Computer modelling of genetic circuits (fuzzy logic)
-Searching for miRNA expression data in patients (GDC)
-Selecting the most appropriate miRNA candidates (MATLAB, R)
-Annotating miRNAs of patients and matching them with the involved genes and metabolic pathways (R, Diana Tools, KEGG, GO analysis)
-Structuring suitable ODEs for simulating biological systems-phenomena (MATLAB)
For the wet lab workshop, team members formed with participants a “think tank” as a way to brainstorm and design a synthetic biology project. By simulating the engineering cycle and following multiple abstraction levels (System → Device → Part → DNA), the students were able to come up with innovative ideas (such as yeast cells targeting cancer), consisting of different modules.In addition, to back-up their proposed design the following tools were covered:
-Software for the construction of desirable DNA sequences (e.g. SnapGene)
We put in great time for the preparation of the aforementioned hands-on experiences that foster exploration, innovation, and interest in the emerging field of synthetic biology. The goal was to show the participants how the two labs of an iGEM team work independently but they combine and collaboratively interpret their results. Finally, we were excited that we received enthusiastic feedback as the students quickly made progress and designed a project from scratch learning engineering methods to approach a concept and solve occurring problems.
PATh (Physicists Aristotle university of Thessaloniki) EventTwo members of our iGEM team participated in the first scientific conference for undergraduate researchers that took place in the School of Physics of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Our team’s intention was to promote the interdisciplinary character of the iGEM competition and to encourage undergraduate physics students to get involved in the scientific field of synthetic biology as well as systems biology. We presented the modeling part of our project, explained the use of ODEs in dynamical systems and the in situ modeling of fluid dynamics, and provided an overview of the entire project in order to showcase the contributions of an aspiring physicist in synthetic biology. Both students and professors were excited about the field of synthetic biology and the role of physics in such an interdisciplinary field. In fact, a lot of students in the audience were interested to join the forthcoming 2018 iGEM team. Thus, it is safe to conclude that our mission to encourage student participation in the iGEM competition and promote research in the field of synthetic biology was crowned with success.Team Fair 5.0 AUTHComvos (Cooperation and Motivation of Students) organized an open event in which 27 Aristotle University student teams were invited to show their work in their respective booths. Anyone, not just students, was free to join this event to converse, learn about the possible opportunities as well as participate in the short activities that were planned by Comvos. iGEM Greece explained its project, the options for future development and how it could transcend from the proof-of-concept phase to a real-life application. However, the better part of the two days was focused in explaining how Synthetic Biology is a distinct field and not a subdiscipline of Biology and how the ensemble of engineering principles combined with Biology is an exciting way to go for novel ideas that could not be grasped before.
4th International Synthetic and Systems Biology Summer School - Cambridge, UKMembers of our team participated in the first day of 4th SSBSS in Cambridge to get a grasp on cutting-edge advances in Systems and Synthetic Biology. We presented a poster that included our project idea and dry lab work progress. We also had multiple conversations with other poster presenters (e.g iGEM Team DTU Biobuilders was also participating in the summer school) and integrated their feedback in our work (Link to Integrated Human Practices-Melania). At the end of the sessions, during a welcome cocktail, we were excited that we had the chance to chat with J.D. Keasling (Professor of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering at the University of California, Berkeley), who gave us valuable insights on Synthetic Biology as a concept [Link to watch Keasling Video in HP] while also providing us with tips on how to improve our current idea’s implementation [Link to watch Keasling Video in Integrated HP]. The whole experience amazed us, as we didn’t have the opportunity before to have meaningful conversations for perplex projects with such energetic and innovative people of the field.23rd Scientific Congress of Hellenic Medical Students - Larissa, GreeceWe are firm believers of the notion that experimental explorations of novel therapeutic methods should go hand in hand with the examination of their prospects for clinical implementation. As a result, we gave a talk during the annual Scientific Congress of Hellenic Medical Students, a large gathering where more than 1500 medical students and 350 acclaimed scientists discuss the current and future perspectives in the field of Medicine.Greek European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) Alumni Meet-up - Dilofo, GreeceThe EMBL Alumni Relations program, that includes meetups all over Europe is built to advance EMBL and the relevance of life science research in the scientific community and society at large, by fostering connections between the Laboratory, its member states, current EMBL staff, the EMBL alumni and the public. After contacting the EMBL Alumni in Greece and informing them about our team, iGEM Competition and our project, they kindly invited us to their meetup to present our work. PIs and researchers from all over Greece were participating, coming from multiple backgrounds such as Medicine, Molecular Biology and Structural Biology. It was a mind-opening experience for us, since the attendees seemed not only thrilled with our idea and our experimental output, but also more than willing to give us advice and share their insights. Being surrounded by people with remarkable research experience and scientific boldness, we felt very welcome and lucky. The conversations we had after the end of the presentation were invaluable to us, since we talked about our project, its future potential and societal impact. Their enthusiasm is something we cherish and their advice and support was essential, as it showed us that we were on the right track, with quite a few possible ways to move forward.Volos Summer School of Human Genetics - Volos, Greece organized by the Wellcome Trust Sanger InstituteEngaging in Synthetic Biology and its applications requires a interdisciplinary approach. Therefore expanding knowledge on different fields and investing on multiple skills is key for student members of iGEM Teams. Bearing that in mind, three of our team’s members, Elissavet, Asteris and Charis applied to participate in the 1st Volos Summer School of Human Genetics organized by the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. All three of them got accepted along with 17 MSc students and PhD candidates and headed to Volos, Greece in May.
At the 1st Volos Summer School of Human Genetics, our wet lab members attended lectures about analysing large scale data, conducted genome-wide association studies, took part in biostatistics workshops and familiarized with tools such as PLINK and various R packages. All in all, the summer school was a great opportunity for us to gain new skills but also to discuss with other scientists across Europe about our project and the technical hurdles we encountered in our modeling approach.11th Panhellenic Scientific Chemical Engineering Conference - Thessaloniki, GreeceiGEM Greece participated in the 11th PSCEC and presented its first poster that mainly included preliminary idea and a primary version of a single cell growth model. During the coffee breaks, we had the opportunity to have a fruitful conversation with Hal Alper (Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin).The Muses InitiativeAs an addition to our OSIRIS protocol we invited students to join our ranks as a Muse; an ambassador of synthetic biology, on a mission to promote collaborative research projects all around the globe. Muses have contacted oncologists and experts in molecular biology, shared our informative flyer about synthetic biology in their universities and engaged in lively discussions about our project’s ethical considerations and commercialization potential.
We are big fans of aesthetic flavors in hard science disciplines. During this summer, we set a challenge for ourselves: to communicate our whole integrated project, from the chaotic nature of molecular biocomputers to the quorum sensing of bacterial anticancer agents, as a embodied live presentation. We teamed up and discussed back-and-forth with the Manzins, an experimental contemporary dance company based on Thessaloniki to translate a rather esoteric synthetic biology project into a dance video that will delight and inform the public. During this collaborative work we:
(i) employed visual narratology principles based on Meister, Jan Christoph: "Narratology", Paragraph 6. In: Hühn, Peter et al. (eds.): the living handbook of narratology. Hamburg: Hamburg University Press.
(ii) modified the commonly used vocabulary of dance that constitutes the language of performativity to include abstractions of our experimental vision
Make sure to check the output of this creative cauldron (filled with easter eggs) in the following video: Qul, a multiplayer emulator of cancer researchParaphrasing Spock, it was only narrato-logical to employ visual storytelling principles and build Qul, a multiplayer card game which aims to communicate cancer diagnostics and therapeutics to the general public. Visit our table in Exhibition Space, in Boston and play against one of our team members; Health vs Cancer.Our mark on social mediaOur team has been active on multiple social media platforms in order to update followers about our progress and invite them to our various events. We focused a lot on our Facebook account as it gathered more than 2000 likes and several posts reached out to more than 5000 users. Overall, our Facebook page served as an important line of communication, considering that quite a few iGEM teams and individuals contacted us. We successfully capitalized on our page’s potential by collaborating with students from different universities to seek experts’ feedback for our OSIRIS campaign, conversed with researchers that shared with us their invaluable insight and met students interested to join the 2018 team.