What are you doing?
This year the Imperial College London 2016 iGEM team created two original pieces of integrated human practices work. The first is a new approach to employing the sociological process known as “reflexivity” in an iGEM project. The second is a visual strategy for communication about foundational technologies and basic research that, most importantly, impacted two visualisation pieces we presented at the New Scientist Live event.
First of all, pursuing integrated human practices means considering the ethical, social, legal, or environmental dimension of a project and then incorporating such dimensions into the work of the project. Teams participating in the foundational track of the iGEM competition are often limited to talking to other scientists about their work because of the degree of technicality and lack of immediate application to the “real world”. That is not to say that foundational teams do not need to consider wider implications of their work. Decisions made on a day-to-day basis in a project can have significant consequences inside as well as outside the lab and reflecting on those decisions can uncover broader societal concerns which would otherwise go unnoticed. This process has been termed by social scientists as “reflexivity.” Our team decided to build on our knowledge of reflexivity, formalise our approach and implement a customised version of the Socio-Technical Integration Research protocol (S.T.I.R.). We are the first iGEM team to employ the protocol. We are the first to do it without a sociologist present to employ the protocol.
Making S.T.I.R. Work
Reflexivity is a difficult concept to grasp and even more difficult to employ without a formalised approach. S.T.I.R. is designed to take the form of a structured, cyclic discussion which takes place with members of a lab about decisions made over the course of a research project. We made the protocol more useful for iGEM teams to employ themselves with our own, custom approach to the protocol. The unaltered discussions that result from S.T.I.R. are organized as follows:
We built upon this framework to determine our own specific questions to ask ourselves at each stage in the S.T.I.R. protocol. Here are some of the key questions we asked ourselves:
We employed the protocol as an entire team. This was logistically challenging, but resulted some of the most impactful uses of the protocol. As the project progressed, we realised we could not all recognize opportunities to use it. Therefore, we designated humanist on our team to identify opportunities or decisions to employ it. We recorded our discussions to show their impact on the course of our project.
Here is a template for our initial S.T.I.R. protocol:
Here is a record of our reflexive analysis:
How did you modify it?
S.T.I.R. is intended to be employed in ‘real time’. But after trying to employ the protocol, we discovered our group was having difficulty defining what constituted a decision or opportunity. At first we had a lot of trouble implementing the S.T.I.R. protocol and we could not clearly see the benefits of conducting such a process. It required the team to meet regularly as a whole group, which was in itself a challenging task considering that ecolibrium is a team of twelve students. Upon encouragement, we decided to try applying the S.T.I.R. protocol to decisions we had already made. We eventually came to realised that we had unconsciously been considering many aspects of the S.T.I.R. process every time we made a pivot. Many of the important “decisions” that we made over the course of our project, like building a web database for co-culture experimental design, only became clear to us over time. S.T.I.R. needed to be modified to work for the team. We realised that many of the most significant decisions were made in response to problems we were facing in the lab. For example, “There is no current database for co-culture data”, “We need a better growth regulation module”.
Therefore, we reimagined the protocol as a problem solving tool with the added benefit of including dimensions that are not normally related to the lab in the problem solving process. We defined problems as:
Any discussion where you are unsure of the outcome that will have an impact on your project
We adapted the S.T.I.R. protocol to include elements from the problem-based learning (PBL) framework. The problem-based learning framework is a student centered style of teaching. Students learn by solving open-ended problems. After some team discussions, we felt the modifications made reflexivity easier to employ because it became more integrated in the development of the project.
Here is a copy of our revised protocol:
|Prior Knowledge/What do we know?||
|Research & Learn||
|Solve The Problem||
Here is a record of our modified reflexive analysis:
What were some of the key outcomes?
At every stage during our project, we constantly asked ourselves what the impact of our work was on the world and who it might affect. While the protocol has not existed in its current state since the beginning, working with it and trying to employ it has had a profound impact on the development of our project. We cannot say that the creation of all of the many components of our project can be attributed to the S.T.I.R. protocol. We can say that it helped to shape and clarify their development by organizing and structuring our thought process. We hope that in the future, iGEM teams will be able to build on our new method and have it be the easiest method of employing the S.T.I.R. protocol without a “resident sociologist.” Moreover, we hope that future iGEM teams take the time to use our method because of the many contributions reflexivity has brought to our project. Here is a summary of the impact of our reflexive analysis:
We realized that it was hard for people not familiar with our project to grasp the concept of co-culture. Our project revolved around visual strategies. Moreover, we had developed technology that allows for the ratiometric control of different cell populations. Mixing different colours seemed like the best way to showcase our project and have it tie in with our overarching theme of visualisation. After further reflecting on this, we found that this colour mixing technology could be further developed to create environmentally friendly clothing pigments or an easier method for mixing inks in industrial printing processes.
Development of the game:
We realized that many people associate bacteria with negative things, like disease. We also realized the abundance of microbial consortia in nature that produce useful products like milk or cheese. Furthermore, many people are completely unaware of the lab practices involved in synthetic biology. We determined that there was a need for many people to be educated about the benefits of synthetic microbial consortia. Our educational material needed to be far reaching and accessible. Therefore, we decided to develop a mobile application called Go Culture.
Development of the web tool:
After discussions with researchers at the Center for Synthetic Biology at Imperial College, we realized that there was no standardized method for doing co-culture. We learned that many researchers who would use co-culture do not because of the amount of preliminary experimental data and literature they would would need to review in order to conduct their experiments. Therefore, we decided to create an online tool for researchers and iGEM teams to access for their future co-culture experiments.
Development of the visualisation strategy:
After discussions with students at the Royal College of Art about our project, we realized we were having difficulty communicating about our project with them to inspire future applications. We developed graphics which made it easier to understand our project. The artists we able to more easily grasp the concept of co-culture. We realized the difficulties with science communication and creating graphics that explain foundational technologies. We realized the importance of engaging with the public about basic scientific research to shape their future development. Therefore, we developed a strategy to make effective visualisations to communicate about foundational technologies.
One of the key outcomes of our reflexive analysis was the development of our “Visual Strategies Experiential Guidebook”. We realized that there were many opportunities for designers and artists and sociologists and other non-specialists to have an impact
on the future applications of our enabling technology. However, it was extremely difficult to communicate the power of our technology to these audiences. After 6 hours of official meetings and several hours of discussion with
students and faculty at the Royal College of Art, we realized that visual media was the key to quick understanding. We refined our presentations, developing interesting graphics. We took feedback from our small audience. We
researched best practices for the composition of graphics. We finally created visualisations that were easy for them to process and synthesize meaningful feedback. Moreover, after finally creating a visualisation that was easy
to understand, we were astonished by some of the things they suggested. One of those things was modular phenotype engineering. This was a concept we had not considered for our project. From this experience, we decided that
our project needed more input from non-specialists. Therefore, we compiled all of the information we had received from literature and from these artists and designers and created a visualisation guidebook. The visualisation
guidebook has had an impact on the presentation of our project, most notably on the infographic and computer game Go-Culture we presented at the New Scientist Live in London. We included our thought process and some of the
critiques we received from the artists and designers at the Royal College of Art in the book.
Some of the highlights from the book and our research were:
- Choosing a compelling story that can be supported with interestingly represented graphical data
- Classification and examples of visualisations in synthetic biology
- Rules for compositions of graphics to create easy to follow visual hierarchies that guide viewers through a process or story without the use of extraneous arrows or other symbols
- Interactive content is best for increasing comprehension and satisfaction with audiences
- A compendium of resources to make compelling visual media
- A culminating example on our infographics and game we presented at the New Scientist Live event in London
In conclusion, we are the first iGEM team to try to autonomously employ the S.T.I.R. protocol. We made modifications to it through an iterative process. We believe that the state of the current protocol and reflexive analysis should be employed by all future iGEM teams. We hope that our journey through S.T.I.R will be able to inspire others to consider new approaches for integrated human practices. By doing so we believe that they will uncover new ways to reflect on the different dimensions of their project, which will help them making more coherent decisions when facing challenging problems through the whole duration of their project.
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