Outreach is a significant aspect of our project this year. The goal is to pursue a project that will provide a long-standing solution to a current problem. Before deciding on a project, we began our outreach efforts by contacting health care professionals around the world to ask what they saw as the most prevalent and important healthcare issues to address. They overwhelmingly suggested we focus our efforts on addressing vitamin deficiency, due to inadequate access of essential vitamins being a prevalent healthcare issue. Additionally, they made us aware of their concern for patients developing opioid dependencies and how basic medicines such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen can be used in conjunction with these opioids to reduce the dependency of these addictive medications.

Community outreach is, and will always be, an integral component of bioengineering, and more specifically, genetic engineering. Without immersing ourselves in our community, we end up lacking insight into reality, and we run the risk of misunderstanding problems in society. Santa Cruz in particular has a relatively large homeless population for its size, though our concerns are largely founded in foreign affairs.

St. Francis Soup Kitchen in Santa Cruz, California

In an effort to better understand our local community’s relationship with inadequate nutrition and access to medicine, we volunteered at the St. Francis Soup kitchen in Santa Cruz to serve our community. We met with individuals who had been involved at the soup kitchen for many years and were able to gain insight on how both our local and national government have been addressing homelessness in the United States. Homelessness is a multi-faceted issue that also results in an isolated population with inadequate access to proper nutrition and health care. Volunteers voiced their approval at the potential alternative source of fundamental medicines and vitamin supplements our project would provide.

Team members Evan Pepper, Tom Sousa, and Khanh Tran volunteering at the St. Francis Soup Kitchen in Santa Cruz, California.

Here, we were able to interact with and ask certain individuals at the soup kitchen about how their dietary and medical needs are met. Often times they are only able to access the leftovers of their local community, whether it be food or healthcare. The soup kitchen is able to supply lunch five days a week based on the leftovers or newly-expired food from local businesses. Community members at the soup kitchen were excited to see a health-related project aimed towards making a feasible localized medicine approach in communities struggling with precarious access to nutrition and medicine.

We met and built personal relationships with members of our community who we would be impacting by developing a sustainable method of producing essential medicines and supplements. At the St. Francis Soup Kitchen, the relationships we made and the conversations we had would not have been possible without this project.

Our team member, Brittney Wick, demonstrating to a student how a toy containing phosphors can be energized by normal sunlight.

Vietnamese-Catholic Summer Camp at The Lasalle Community Center in San Jose, California

To educate our own community of these issues, our team visited a summer camp to teach students between the ages of 7 and 14 about life sciences. We introduced the concept of genetic engineering through fun activities catered to each age group. In doing so, we hoped to raise awareness of the bioengineering field and inspire the next generation of scientists.

Engage Our Audience -- Grades 2-5

The younger age groups (grades 2 - 5) played a base-pair matching game in which each child wore a piece of construction paper cut like a puzzle piece. Each puzzle piece represented a base, and only the bases A and T could fit to each other while students wearing base C were able to match with the students who wore base G. The students were then introduced to the idea of DNA and its role in shaping our physical characteristics. Younger students were also asked to name animals in English and Vietnamese. This exercise helped the students connect certain lessons to their first language.

Team member Alexander Pearce explaining how to play the base pairing game.

Engage Our Audience -- Grades 6-8

The older students were challenged to an egg drop activity. They were given an egg and several household items such as yarn, dixie cups, and straws, and challenged to make a container for a raw egg so that the egg would not break after being dropped from several feet from the ground. Before dropping the egg, the group members made a brief presentation about their device, describing their logic behind their design, and of course, announcing their team name. We discussed the reasons behind the results, asking, “what do you think led some eggs to break but not others?” This activity helped them problem solve while in groups.

Team member Evan Pepper giving advice to the students about how to build a contraption to keep an egg safe when dropped.

Following the egg drop activity, we used eggs to explain a simplified version of genetic engineering by injecting green dye into the yolk without breaking the egg. We asked whether they thought it would be feasible to modify a cell (the egg) without breaking it. We explained that just like in genetic engineering where a modification has to be made to the cell to make it easier to insert DNA, we had to soak the egg in vinegar to make it easier to inject the dye. This activity introduced the basics of genetic engineering.

Team member Alexander Pearce giving advice on how to problem solve.

Besides the main activities, we also helped the students make oobleck and demonstrated an egg being sucked into a bottle with the help of a few matches. We aimed to show the students how exciting science can be if we allow ourselves to ask questions with the determination to discover as many possible answers as our question would allow, and to be open to new questions as they arise.

Team member Khanh Tran teaching the older age group about cell biology shortly before the green dye injection activity.

Leland High School in San Jose, California

We also guest lectured at Leland High School in San Jose on synthetic biology and genetic engineering, and the ethical, cultural, political and various other implications associated with modern laboratory endeavours. With an audience of high school students, we hoped to spur a conversation that addressed both the consequences and rewards of genetic engineering, while instilling a greater sense of awareness and ethical reasoning in the students. We hoped to inspire these students to delve into the policies surrounding genetic engineering, as well as to question its applications and potential consequences in society.

Team visiting Leland High School in San Jose, California to lecture about synthetic biology and its ethical implications. (from left to right: Khanh Tran, Marissa Taub, Daniel Schmelter, Evan Pepper, PI Dr. David Bernick, Alexander Pearce, McKenna Hicks, Casidee McDonough, and Pratibha Jagannatha)

Each lecture was approximately an hour and a half. During that time, we focused on the process of identifying real-world problems, finding practical solutions to multifaceted problems, and identifying possible consequences associated with the proposed solutions. As recommended by the teacher of the AP Environmental Studies class, Samuel Rivera, we studied and discussed the Marshall Islands case study to apply critical thinking and problem solving skills involved in tackling a multifaceted problem. The Marshallese were displaced by U.S. nuclear weapons testing and currently face inadequate access to healthcare and proper nutrition as a result of poor U.S. policies meant to rectify the negative impact of previous nuclear weapons testing.

We invited the students to recreate our process of asking the community what struggles they face, integrating the community’s response into our solution, and discussing in detail the implications of such a solution. We wanted to provide a glimpse of the process that we ourselves encountered while deciding on our project for the next generation of undergraduate researchers. Additionally the discussion allowed us to become more aware of inadequate access to healthcare and resources happening right here in the United States and in United States territory. Together, our team members and the students of Leland High School were able to produce strategies of easily accomplished feats such as raising awareness over a social media platform or lobbying for policy changes through our local governments as well as possible scientific solutions. We wanted to instill in our young peers that the youth can indeed change the world, even if we must do so one small step at a time.

Our slideshow presentation from our visit to Leland High School.

While we were able to teach the students about our own experience, we learned more about how younger students approach problems faced by isolated, underrepresented and disenfranchised people and begin to formulate a solution. We also began to understand what aspects of genetic engineering caused some hesitation among students, where where there may be some misinformation. We led a discussion on ways to address their concerns on synthetic biology and genetic engineering, which helped the students think critically about potential ethical implications of biosynthetic solutions.

We invoked collaborative discussions among high school students, about topics that are out of our everyday realm of thinking and expertise. To discuss topics that are uncomfortable and out of our area of expertise, we have to be brave enough to take the past into account for what it was, and to problem solve and think critically to create effective solutions for the future.

University of California, Santa Cruz

To raise awareness on campus not only about iGEM and our project, but also about bioengineering and genetic engineering, we tabled at the annual OPERS fall festival and asked students what bioengineering meant to them. We were met with a variety of responses from the student body, and we were delighted to see how open-minded many students were. We discussed issues revolving GMO's, the pharmaceutical industry, genetic engineering and eugenics, bioethics, and of course, some of the many problems associated with malnutrition and vitamin deficiency. We emphasized the interdisciplinary nature of iGEM, as well as the crucial role everyone has in helping develop a potential solution to a real-world problem.

At the annual OPERS Festival held on the UC Santa Cruz campus, students responded to the question "What does Bioengineering mean to you?"

Lastly, we held a two hour long lecture on the UC Santa Cruz campus to discuss synthetic biology, iGEM, our project specifically, and how students could get involved in the future. We had approximately 50 students in attendance, and held a lengthy Q&A after our talk. This was a great experience for us as a team, and truly brought our outreach full circle. It was inspiring for us to discuss relevant topics regarding synthetic biology to an audience of peers interested in biology, engineering, policy, ethics, research, and everything in between.

Our outreach does not stop here. It can’t stop here. We must always be in communication with not only the intended recipients of our project, but also those who can aid us along the way, and those who are interested in getting involved. Doing meaningful science that is good for the world takes teamwork, and we pride ourselves on our ability to communicate with others.