Education &
Public Engagement

Bridging the gap between synthetic biology engineers and society

Our team took a strong approach towards education. We realised the importance of incorporating a responsible and relevant design after our interaction with various stakeholders and the public and that we lacked this awareness before. With this mindset, we developed a video series tackling “how iGEM teams can improve work on stakeholder and public interaction by including both relevance and responsibility in their design”, and reflection materials, aiming to encourage stakeholder- and public interaction incorporation into future projects. Additionally, we took this a step further and looked at how the education of future synthetic biology (synbio) engineers can be improved. We did this in collaboration with the 4TU Centre for Engineering Education. This institution works together with the 4 technical universities in the Netherlands to study issues in the development, use and regulation of techno­logy. We contributed to the future education of a synbio engineer that ensures the translation of complex but relevant synthetic biology research to society and also guarantee the communication and collaboration between different fields of expertise. Our strong approach towards education was also carried into the public sector starting with the crafting of DNA key chains and educating the public about synbio during various events. Our interactive methods triggered the interest of the audience to learn more about synthetic biology and enter into a dialogue about its potential. The dialogues with the public continued even after our inspiring TEDx talk and presentations on several events

Education for iGEM teams

Our solution for the struggles of iGEM teams regarding stakeholder and public interaction

As synthetic biology (synbio) engineers, we believe in the strengths and potentials of this field. However, for society, synbio is a difficult topic to understand and comes with negative associations with respect to ethics and safety. Due to this, allowing the synbio field to flourish is a challenge.

Relevance and responsibility are two main aspects that fill the gap between engineers, industry and society

Relevance and responsibility are the two main aspects that we consider to be important and undervalued in synthetic biology, taking into account that these two aspects are able to fill the gaps between engineers, industry and society. Furthermore, showing that synbio can be relevant and done in a responsible way will promote societal acceptance of synbio research and products.

With relevance, the importance lies in the function of the product. It should have a synbio design with a clear purpose and bring added value to the society and industry. This will lead to further acceptance.

With responsibility as an aspect will contribute in making the society feel comfortable with synbio research. Furthermore, engineers should be able to convince people that their product is for good, not harm. For this part, topics such as sustainability, safety and ethics should be taken into consideration.

Linking this to the iGEM competition, including relevance and responsibility, helps to achieve a strong integrated human practices and public engagement project. There topics are often seen as an abstract, difficult to interpret part of iGEM, something that we also struggled with in the beginning. We used our project as an example on how to make a project relevant and responsible for other iGEM teams and documented this process clearly in our video project. It will show the successes but also the challenges we experienced. With this, we hope to inspire other teams to do proper integrated human practices and to see its added value to the project.

How can iGEM teams include responsibility and relevance in their design?

In the first video, we illustrate why relevance and responsibility are the two main aspects of a successful synbio project. In the second video, we show the importance of stakeholder interaction and visualise how stakeholder interactions shaped our project. In the last video, we acknowledge that public engagement and stakeholder interaction were not smooth processes and we tried to identify what made it challenging. Not only have we been documenting our process to inspire other iGEM teams, we also aim to help future synbio engineers with tips and workshops illustrated in the videos.

Relevance and responsibility: the duty of an engineer

Video 1

The Titanic is a good example of a case in which engineers had to take almost opposing values from different stakeholders into account. Was it possible to design lifeboats that were safe and, at the same time, fit the unsinkable image? Synthetic biology is a field that can be seen as bearing huge potential, or as being extremely harmful. Is it the duty of synbio engineers to use synthetic biology for good and prevent harm?

Our bumpy ride to a relevant and responsible design

Video 2

A lot of assumptions we made from a synbio engineer perspective were incorrect. For example, the idea that GMOs with a killswitch would be instantly socially accepted or the idea that antibiotic resistance detection is straightforward and would solve the worldwide problem. These topics turned out to be more complicated than we previously envisioned. How did we become aware of the real challenges and how did we adapt our project?

The key to a relevant and responsible design

Video 3

Looking back, integrated human practices was not a priority; our decisions about the project in the early stages were not based on safety or societal acceptance but more focused on doing good science and developing a cool project.

A lot of tools to do integrated human practices are available, but why are they not used by today's engineers? Can iGEM teams be motivated to do proper stakeholder and public interaction and validation considering relevance and responsibility?

For teams to reflect and balance

As explained in video 3, it makes it easier to start a project with a balanced team in order to create a relevant and responsible design. When a team is balanced, it is easier to oversee all the important aspects of the project. After defining our team roles in collaboration with 4TU Centre for Engineering Education, we developed a process and additionally a workshop to reflect on iGEM projects and to help iGEM teams become aware of their project approach, and to make team aware that some aspects in the project can only be answered with stakeholder- and public interaction.

  • Step 1: Profile identifier

    With this test you can find out what type of engineers you have in our team. Subsequently, you can find about the team's project approach, strengths and pitfalls.

  • A team of specialists
    Beliefs during iGEM

    “I can change the world with incremental science. The goal is to become a specialist in my field and to publish valuable results for the research field.”

    Pains and frustrations during iGEM
    • Difficulties with the language gaps between experts from different fields
    • Difficulty in accepting compromises
    • Less experience with business, little sense of entrepreneurship
    Most valuable contribution in a iGEM team
    • Lab work
    • Modeling
    • Experiment design
    • Little motivation for stakeholder interaction
    • No focus for relevant or responsible design
    • No integration of different parts in the project
    Project approach

    Optimization of technique for better performance on synbio research

  • A team of system integrators
    Beliefs during iGEM

    “Efficient and proper integration will contribute to a better world. Different modules should be properly integrated and fine-tuned to make a better whole”

    Pains and frustrations during iGEM
    • Difficulties with the language gaps between experts from non-scientific field
    • Difficulty in accepting inefficient work and non-systematic thinking
    • Little experience with business sense
    Most valuable contribution in a iGEM team
    • Managerial role
    • Process optimisation considering labor-intensity and time consumption
    • Delay in work because of compromises
    • Lack of decisions
    • Optimization of technology processes but lacking the process optimization in broader context
    Project approach

    Integration of different techniques for a complete solution

  • A team of front-end innovators
    Beliefs during iGEM

    “Products can be implemented in society and that are relevant will contribute to a better world. Therefore, their goals is to develop new solutions that meet the demand in the complex changing world”

    Pains and frustrations during iGEM
    • Technological feasibility that cannot meet the demand and customers needs
    • Slow processes, endless validation in the lab
    • Approach from experts and system integrators that focus on with what instead of why
    • Difficulty in accepting non-strategic thinking and the lack of motivation for validation with stakeholders by experts
    Most valuable contribution in a iGEM team
    • Product development
    • Integrated human practices
    • Motivated to sell a relevant product and therefore tendency to twist the frame or story
    • Impatient with scientific work such as lab work
    • Make too much assumptions about the technological feasibility
    Project approach

    Contribution towards innovation for new industry and society

  • A team of contextual engineers
    Beliefs during iGEM

    “Make borders disappear and come with solutions that are in line with the whole context. Only solutions that fit society (people), industry (profit) and environment (planet) can make the world a better place.”

    Pains and frustrations during iGEM
    • Difficulty to translate the validation and visions of stakeholders in the scientific projects
    Most valuable contribution in a iGEM team
    • Integrated human practices
    • No focus as everything seems interesting
    • Rather optimization of process within the context, than science optimization
    • Slow process as everything is considered and no boundaries are determined
    • Make too much assumption about the technological feasibility
    Project approach

    Develop and implement technology in industry and society

  • Step 2: Balance

    After identification of individual roles, iGEM teams are more able to discuss the goals, beliefs, frustrations and different project approaches within the team. Once aware of any unbalanced situations, the teams can invite other types of engineers in their team or ask external feedback from people with other perspectives on their project. In the table below, the roles are illustrated with some corresponding characteristics, and some studies and jobs are mentioned to help teams to find people with other perspectives.

    Specialists System Integrators Front-end innovators Contextual engineers
    Characteristic Analytic, engineering mindset, independent, curious Object oriented, pragmatic, organised Open-minded, emphatic, explorative, creative, risk taking Resilient, visionary, perseverance
    Studies like Physics, Mathematics, Electrical engineering (Process) engineering studies, Aerospace engineering Industrial Design, Entrepreneurial/business studies Technical Policy and Management studies, Law related studies, Sustainability related studies
    Jobs PHDs and researchers Consultancy Start-ups and Fast innovating businesses Safety agencies and institutes, government
  • Step 3: Reflection Workshop

    Together with 4TU Centre for Engineering Education, iGEM TU Delft 2017 designed a reflection workshop that will help iGEM teams reflect on their synbio project using all four engineering roles equally. Teams that lack certain engineering roles, can invite students or people from other catergories.It has been validated that this workshop contributes to the awareness of all team members that stakeholder- and public interaction is important for the project. The workshop is based on validated reflection methods that help teams to achieve better results. Find info about the workshop here!

Education for Engineers

The next step: beyond the scope of iGEM

The iGEM team of Delft University of Technology was prepared to critically reflect on their own team roles for a successful implementation of their design, therewith being able to upgrade not only their final result of the competition, but also the team contributed to the future education of potential synbio engineers.Danielle Ceulemans (4TU CEE)

After developing the workshop with 4TU, we realised that the challenges involved with unbalanced teams could be avoided simply by having a different approach in the education programmes of engineers.

4TU CEE has developed the concept file “Future proof profiles 2030”, that illustrates how the education of engineers can be adapted to a more well-rounded graduate. These roles form the base for engineering education in the future.

  • CEE
    In order to boost engineering education, the Board of the 4TU Federation has decided to work together in a Centre for Engineering Education. The 4TU CEE aims to gather, develop and implement up-to-date expertise in engineering education. (New) improvements in education are implemented and the effectiveness of these improvements is monitored and analysed. The expertise and experiences of all four partners is exchanged to benefit all partners.

Our Findings and Contribution

We found that our current education programmes are mainly focused on educating specialists and system integrators. We need to be more than that! Synbio education should therefore focus more on educating front-end innovators and contextual engineers, which are the type of engineers that have more eye for stakeholder dialogues and public engagement. Our findings acknowledged that diversity within teams and education is important and required to solve complex problems in the future considering planet, people, profit and processes.4TU CEE found iGEM to form a perfect example of what type of engineers will be necessary in the future considering complex topics such as synthetic biology that bring ethical challenges and knowledge gaps between experts, society and industry.

We helped them to get insights in how synbio education programmes (and therefore also other engineering programmes) should develop and we collaborated on solutions to

  • keep up the leaps and bounds being made in science
  • not translate complex but relevant synthetic biology research to society, also engage society
  • ensure the communication and collaboration between different fields of expertise

Also, we validated that the roles are a perfect base of the reflection of projects, as we have shown with our workshop developed in collaboration with 4TU CEE.

This way, future synbio engineers are able to close the gaps between synbio engineers, society and industry, and are the ingredients for a flourishing synbio field.

Public Engagement

Together with helping other iGEM teams to do integrated human practices and improve the education of engineers in general, we looked to engage the public in showing the possibilities of synthetic biology. “What are we making?” was the main question that led to a diversity of dialogues. Crafting DNA key chains and candy models with young children, parents and elderly was a lovely way to start a conversation about synthetic biology at different events. Craft your own DNA with paracords to make right-handed DNA, and hustle your candy base pairs to write your own DNA sequence. While crafting we taught the public synthetic biology and DNA.

DNA is like a blueprint, but then instead of building a house you build a person!
DNA is like a recipe your grandma uses to make cookies iGEM TU Delft

In general perception, DNA is an abstract concept. To show that working with DNA in the lab can be easily copied in the kitchen, we made a video about isolating DNA from fruits.

We thought of an interactive way to explain the characteristics of DNA with keychains and candy. To accompany this, we made a poster that explains the function and characteristics further. *unfoldable of poster when clicking?* ‘From DNA to human’ showed the composition of Gaby, zooming out from DNA to the scale of an actual human being. We explained that cells, such as bacteria, can be used as little factories that produce, break down or detect things. Therefore, bacteria can be used for various purposes, such as bioplastics and biofuels. DNA is used to programme your factory the way you want it to be. Once people understand how DNA modification was related to genetically modified organisms and purposes, dialogues were established and we were able to talk about the potentials, concerns and the future of synthetic biology. In addition, we took part in a number of events that encouraged discussions about ethics, potential and concerns about synthetic biology in our local community. The most exciting being the opportunity to give a TEDx talk about synthetic biology and to present our project at the alumni event during the 175th anniversary of the TU Delft! Here is the video of the TEDx talk:

A summary of the different events we took part in can be found below. Also, more information and pictures of the events can be found on our Facebook.

  • Museum Night Leiden

    The Museum Night Leiden is the night during which all museums and faculties in the centre of Leiden open their doors to show the public more about culture and science. iGEM TU Delft was invited to come and show their DNA keychain and candy crafting table, photobooth, and DNA isolation video.

  • Dutch Biotechnology Conference

    iGEM TU Delft attended the Dutch Biotechnology Conference, organised by the Dutch Biotechnology Association (NBV). The NBV is an association for all professionals in the field of Applied Life Sciences, a valuable network with over 1000 members from different disciplines, from the business sector to education. During this event we brainstormed with other attendees about how we could stimulate the innovation of biotechnology and synthetic biology. Furthermore, we gained feedback on our project helping us to shape our project.

  • TEDxDelft talk online

    Kelly delivered a talk on “synthetic biology in our everyday life” for TEDxDelft. This was a great starting point to open discussion with the audience to talk about the potential and concerns of synthetic biology during drinks.

  • International Festival of Technology

    iGEM TU Delft contributed to the microbe market at the International Festival of Technology. Here, visitors were informed about what microbes are and how they contribute to commonly known products such as food, and medicine. Here we explained the concept of using synthetic biology to tackle worldwide problems by giving our project as an example. Once again, we visualized the blueprint of life by making colourful double helix keychains; this kind of became our trademark.

  • Alumni Event

    In honour of TU Delft’s 175th anniversary, we attended the alumni event. Our team member Jasper had the privilege to present about iGEM and our project for the TU Delft alumni.

  • Science Day

    Our team was also present at the yearly Science Day event, organised by the Applied Sciences Faculty of TU Delft. We learned a lot about how collaborations can emerge in the most unexpected way. In addition, we had the opportunity to show our project to the staff of the faculty for the first time.

  • Freshers' Week

    We were invited to inspire the new TU Delft students with our innovative project. We are confident that we have met the iGEM stars of the future!

  • Knowledge Parade: National Institute of Public Health and the Environment

    During the knowledge parade, an event organised by the National Institute of Public Health and Environment upon which it opened its doors to the public. Visitors were able to find out about the work done there along with synthetic biology in general, based on a broad range of activities. The activities were based on health, sustainability and food security. Of course, we were present with our DNA keychains and do-it-yourself DNA candy. Furthermore, we talked with visitors about our relationship and collaboration with the National Institute of Public Health and the Environment (RIVM). We explained how legislation and the RIVM could prevent harmful use of synthetic biology and stimulate utilization for good.

  • Engagement with project personalized bacteria

    Due to our crowdfunding, we were able to involve friends, family and followers on Facebook in our project. The amount of money raised exceeded our expectations! Find out more at our crowdfunding page.

  • Networking Event: Medical Delta Café

    The Medical Delta Caf é is an event that brings together innovators from the Life Sciences and Health & Technology sectors. Doctors, researchers and entrepreneurs discuss and present opportunities for research cooperation and product development. Here, we pitched our project vision and subsequently hosted a poster session that initiated various dialogues that we can classify in 2 categories:

    1. Potential application

      Our detection system can be used to indicate the requirement of alternative treatments. The rise of (multi)resistant bacteria not only triggers a debate about responsible antibiotic usage, but also provides incentive to look for alternative treatment options. We spoke to entrepreneurs and shareholders in a company that provides phage-therapy that is particularly beneficial when antibiotics fail to dispose of a persistent bacterial infection. In this way, our novel detection system can complement phage-therapy and provide a complete workflow to help farmers get rid of a troublesome infection.

    2. Commercialization

      Several business developers were interested to learn about our innovative approach as a novel synbio application to help solve societally-relevant problems. The first question they ask after the project description is: “What did you do to protect your idea?” Filing a patent, for example, is an important step to secure investment and be able to take the idea to develop the product. In conducting innovative scientific research, teams should also consider legal and business aspects if they wish to take their idea to the market.

  • Venture Café

    The Venture Café’s Thursday Gatherings are weekly inclusive community gatherings that aim to connect innovators. The Thursday Gathering on May 4th was dedicated to Nanobiology: solving the biggest challenges with the smallest technology. During this event, we inspired entrepreneurs, investors and fellow students about the cooperative and inclusive nature of the iGEM community. In return, the discussions about iGEM, and synthetic biology in general, stimulated further thinking about the safety and business-related aspects of our project.

iGEM Meetups
  • Benelux Meetup

    During this inspiring day, we met other iGEM teams from the Benelux. Ideas were shared on the projects and we, as iGEM TU Delft, helped other teams to shape their project during the Workhshop "Change of perspective". Also, the team members of other iGEM teams took on the roles of our stakeholders.

  • European Meetup

    This year, we took initiative in bringing together all European iGEM teams. A stunning 33 teams from 9 different countries visited our beautiful city of Delft to learn more about synthetic biology, share project ideas and subsequently engage in discussions about possible collaborations. In order to get the most out of the experience, we split the European iGEM Meetup into a symposium, poster presentations and social events.