Preparing and inspiring future generations to take on the challenges of synthetic biology was an important part of our iGEM project. Our work on this involved introducing the field of synthetic biology and iGEM to high school students, as well as introducing the iGEM competition to the younger attendants at the Chalmers University of technology and other universities. We viewed this as an important part of our project since inspiring the next generation is vital for the continuing development of the field of synthetic biology and science in general.
High school seminars
The high school seminars involved presentations, quizzes and discussions within the field of synthetic biology.
The lectures/seminars involved some basic information surrounding biology, an introduction to synthetic biology and iGEM as well as information about our team project. At the end of each presentation, a discussion was held where the students could express their own opinion regarding the ethics of synthetic biology and genetic engineering. Both the students and teachers showed great interest in iGEM, the potential future role of synthetic biology and the challenges faced by the field.
The discussion part of the seminar was highly productive and gave a lot of insight into how the younger generation views synthetic biology and genetic modification of living organism. Overall they were very positive and interested in how the process of genetic engineering worked as well as the possible risks that might be associated with the technology.
Our team did not feel this was enough and we also sought to engage other university biotech students here in Sweden, therefore we will participate in Bioteknikdagarna (Biotech days) at Chalmers University of technology on november 3-6. Bioteknikdagarna is a multi-day conference attracting biotech students from several technical universities from all over Sweden. As part of this conference we will hold presentations on our iGEM experience, the competition as well as our project. There will also be an open floor exhibition where everyone will have the opportunity to ask questions and interact with the team.
Spreading awareness and interest for synthetic biology can be a difficult task due to the complexity of the field and the fast pace of development. Furthermore, the public scepticism towards genetic engineering and GMOs has been quite strong, at least in Sweden. To explore the awareness of some aspects of synthetic biology and the knowledge about it, our team conducted a survey covering the use of GMOs in household products. The survey also covered some basic concepts within biology, such as DNA and where it can be found. We also went a step further in the pursuit of understanding the public position, in our collaboration with the Istanbul Technical University iGEM team
In our collaboration, we designed the layout and questions for our survey to be able to compare the differences in people's opinions and knowledge of GMO. The results could then be compared and an analysis of the differences can be used to devise future strategies for informing the general public on the use of GMOs in both our countries.
The survey consisted of 15 questions in total with an initial part covering age, gender and education level to aid in analysis of the results. The questions were first written in English and then translated to the native languages of each teams' country (Swedish and Turkish).
Results and discussion
The participation on the survey was good, with 183 and 875 participants in Sweden and Turkey respectively. Demographically, the diversity was not optimal with over 80 percent of the participants having a university education which is not representative of the population as a whole in either Sweden or Turkey. Correction for this will of course have to be part of the analysis. Furthermore, it should be stated that conclusions drawn here are merely the thought and conclusions drawn by our team and are open for interpretation. After statistical analysis in the form of a t-test, the discussed results were shown to be significant.
As a whole, the attitude towards genetically modified organisms (GMOs) was more positive in Sweden with over 80 percent being positive, whereas in Turkey, 72 percent had a negative or sceptical attitude towards GMOs. The sceptical attitude towards GMOs could be linked to the low exposure to the subject within formal education. Results show only 28 percent of the Turkish participants having received any information regarding GMO within an educational setting. Furthermore, the Turkish participants showed a higher level of dissatisfaction with the information that they had received. When asked if GMOs should be used for medical purposes, 24 percent of the Turkish participants disagreed, whereas 3 percent disagreed in the Swedish poll. This result can most likely be attributed towards the general scepticism towards GMO that the Turkish participants showed. Swedish participants did not agree that GMO products should be labeled, in contrast to the Turkish poll where 93 percent agreed that GMO products should be labeled as such. This further illustrates the mistrust that the Turkish participants showed towards GMO products
The mistrust may be due to a low availability of good information regarding GMO, clear information on how it works and what the risks with the technology can be. Since the participants in the Swedish poll consisted mostly of university graduates, which does not represent the majority of the population, their positivity may not reflect the true opinion of the general population. From a Swedish perspective, it is quite clear that the opinions of the general population is not as high as the poll might indicate.
Both nations did however show great interest in the field of GMOs and genetic engineering. 80 percent or more were interested in learning more about this field. A prudent strategy for both nations could be to include more information of the basics of genetics and biology in the lower levels of education to increase the level of understanding for life and biological processes.
To further diversify the speculative design part of our project we collaborated with the iGEM team from the University of southern Denmark. One of their teammates Rikke Friis Bentzon helped contribute one of the stories that was part of the speculative design part of our integrated HP . Furthermore we also participated in a 3 day human practices seminar set up by the danish iGEM team “CosmoCrops” from Copenhagen University. The weekend consisted of ethical discussions and seminars as well as lectures on presentation technique and patenting. iGEM representative Ana Sifuentes also held a lecture that helped prepare us for the Jamboree.