As we carried out our public engagement throughout the course of our project we wanted to address two questions in order to make our activities in this area meaningful and useful. Who do we need to talk to and what do these people want or need to know?
We carried out a survey to find out which aspects of the project public were least familiar with to provide a focal point for our engagement activities. We split the responses into two categories according to the age of respondents; under 21 and over 21 as many of the older groups had very few members. From this survey we found that 90% of people had heard of genetic engineering but we found that people in the younger group were more likely to have heard of genetic engineering and, in a further question, were more likely to be prepared to take a genetically engineered bacterium as a medical treatment. This suggested to us that education is linked to our our treatment being accepted by the general public, and therefore the ongoing success of our project.
Only 45% of people had heard of synthetic biology and as this is what iGEM is about we decided this was another topic we should focus on when engaging with the public so that people can fully understand what we are trying to do.
In the same survey we found that only 29% of people had heard of Orphan diseases such as Wilson's disease. Lack of awareness is a massive problem for rare diseases as it makes it harder for people to be correctly diagnosed and funding for treatments of these diseases is harder to obtain as they only affect small numbers of people. We decided this would be something we could publicise that would have a beneficial impact beyond iGEM for people who have Wilson's disease and other rare diseases.
Our engagement can be split into three different levels; local, national and international activities. Within these categories, some activities were specific where we explained the exact mechanisms of our project and got people interested in the potential of synthetic biology, while others were more general and helped bring the general issues of our project to a wider audience.
Natural History Museum Summer School
We hosted students aged 16-17 carrying out summer research projects at Oxford's Natural History Museum in our lab for the day. We gave them a presentation on our project and the relevant scientific techniques we used to do this. We designed specific resources such as genetic circuit trouble shooting exercises to enable them to put their new knowledge of synthetic biology into practice and then gave them a tour of our lab to show them what real research is like. We hope we have inspired some future iGEM participants through this!
Bang! Science Magazine
We wrote an article about our project for Bang! Science magazine, an Oxford student publication that aims "to bring current research at Oxford and elsewhere to people both within and outside of the university" and has a readership of over 7500 people. This raised awareness of Wilson's disease and the potential of synthetic biology to a wide audience and we hope it will encourage students to apply to participate in iGEM next year.
We were interviewed by the radio station JackFM which covers Oxfordshire and has a weekly audience of 107 000 people. We used this opportunity to educate people about rare diseases and specifically Wilson's disease.
Biochemistry Department Cake Sale for the Wilson's Disease Support Group
We held a cake sale in the Biochemistry department to raise money for the Wilson's disease support group, helping patients in two ways, both financially and by raising awareness of their disease in one of the largest Biochemistry departments in the world which may encourage more research into Wilson's disease in the future.
Oxford Summer Schools
We ran a workshop on synthetic biology at an Oxford college on synthetic biology which started with a presentation of our project and then saw participants working in small groups with a member of the Oxford iGEM team on synthetic biology activities we had made such as primer design and PCR concepts. After the success of our first workshop we were asked by another college to run a similar activity for them. The participants were year 13 students from across the UK considering applications to Oxford and we hope to have inspired them to do so and to consider studying related biological subjects.
Wilson's Disease Support Group AGM, Cambridge
We attended the Wilson's Disease Support Group's AGM to present our project and talk to patients with the disease to gain ur perspective. In dong so we hoped to inform those who would benefit the most from our project exactly how such a treatment could work as we have found that a thorough understanding is key to gaining support for our work. At this meeting we were asked to produce a leaflet about Wilson's disease aimed at younger patients to explain about the condition.
Oxford Alumni Weekend
We gave a presentation to Oxford alumnae from around the world and their families when they visited the Biochemistry department as part of the Alumni Weekend in Oxford. We explained the mechanism of our project and more generally about iGEM and synthetic biology in order to raise awareness of these topics with an older demographic that our survey suggested we should target.
Oxford iGEM visits Cyprus
Andreas, a member of the Oxford iGEM team, lives in Cyprus where there has never been an iGEM team before. He did a presentation at his old school about iGEM, synthetic biology and how it can be used to solve problems and diseases. His talk was attended by high school students, teachers and parents as well as undergraduates from the University of Cyprus. One of these students expressed an interest in starting an iGEM team next year and we hope we have inspired a whole new country to get involved with iGEM in the future!
Poster Presentation and London International Youth Science Forum
Shu, a member of the Oxford iGEM team attended the LIYSF and presented our poster about our project, Wilson's disease and synthetic biology's potential application. This bought Wilson's disease to the attention of 475 enthusiastic young scientists from 75 countries, many of whom had never heard of Wilson's disease before and were interested in finding out more.