Various extraordinary synthetic biology projects can be depicted as boats and ships, seeking the safety of a harbor in the wide ocean, their main purpose finding the final destination.
No matter how different or fascinating the boat is, its main purpose is to safely arrive to the harbor. Before there were modern GPS systems, sailors had to rely on using natural events and signs. One of the main was the lodestar, the most shining star, which is always a good orientation point.
Similarly, many research projects can struggle no matter how fascinating they are. They might lose the feeling of reality and just travel for the sake of travel.
In order to give the right coordinates, which showed to be of high importance in our case, we developed a new symbol for future iGEM teams who might apply their projects to the medical field – community oriented lodestar. No matter if the team is competing in the foundational advance or medical application section, maximization of benefit to society should be the number one priority.
For content click on THE star
Consequently, if ever lost, teams should just find the shining star and orient in respect to it. By thorough discussions and careful implementation of ideas provided by all the participants involved in dialogue, iGEM team should be able to present at the Giant Jamboree the most of the project –completely analyzed project in real life. It’s not only the idea that influences the minds and thinking of individuals involved, but the relationship is reciprocal. The people involved have a great deal of influence over the idea itself as well. The concept will be explained on our example. While we are competing in the foundational advance track we have considered many possible medical applications of our project, particularly diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and hemorrhagic diseases, since medicine is the field of study of several students and other students and mentors have a soft spot for this direction. .
Education and Public Engagement
Synthetic Biology is supposed to be a broad and open field of science and technology which can be entered by people from different backgrounds. As such, it is supposed to transcend the self-imposed limits of class, nationality, cultural background, gender, financial status, … However, closer look at this topic might inform us of inequality present in this discipline. On one hand, some researchers find themselves in privileged position based on certain factors they have no influence over (such as the strategic importance of their country sets on synthetic biology, development and investment in science, culture of the neighboring countries …). On the other hand, many diligent, determined and devoted individuals live in places where their talent and creativity cannot be sufficiently developed; such as based on the investment if their country places on the development of natural sciences. iGEM community tries to decrease the present gap and gives all the teams an equal platform as a start of their project. Nevertheless, certain factors such as the availability of resources, openness of the laboratory facilities to students, availability of sufficient funding and mentors keen on passing their knowledge to younger generations are still lacking. Consequently, it might seem that teams from the USA, European Union and China are in somewhat advantaged position.
With this in mind, we wanted to make a change and serve as a positive example for future iGEM teams. We did not try to change the world over the night, but still we wanted to show how small actions matter.
iGEM suggests that the already established teams mentor new ones as part of collaboration, but if the circumstances have not allowed for a formation of a team yet, nothing changes. Just in our vicinity the large majority of countries from ex-Yugoslavia have never had a team. But we didn’t want to overzealously take charge and establish a new team in an entitled, domineering way. As history teaches us, true change can only come from within the disadvantaged community. One must not put oneself in lead and thus aid in stripping people of their agency even more, but can merely listen, offer help and be a good ally, helping empower the community to empower itself.
For that reason, we wanted to motivate students to be even more proactive and engaging towards establishment of their team in historically proximate countries, such as Montenegro. Therefore, we picked the targeted audience – winners of national competitions in natural sciences (biology, chemistry, physics, and astronomy) or very motivated students who were both participants of Science Summer School at Ivanova korita in Montenegro (7).
Our team member organized a workshop “Synthetic Biology and iGEM Competition” at abovementioned summer school for high school students. We consider their age to be critical for decisions regarding future occupation and potential new scientists. They are already the selected population, which improved the information transfer. It was necessary to establish first contact in person, not over the internet, as it provides us with significantly higher chances for the successful motivation of students. Indeed, if we compared results of questionnaire regarding their knowledge of iGEM competition and willingness to participate in it, significant increase in motivation can be seen after only one lecture! (graph)
Not only did they become more aware of and motivated in synthetic biology, but they have also got involved in discussion – in addition to 30min presentation, our team member had 3 rounds of discussion, which lasted for more than 1h! Furthermore, his presentation style and enthusiasm were recognized as he was voted to be 3rd best presenter at the summer school and was invited to hold lectures on other science schools which will be organized in the future.
As the students expressed strong interest and motivation for synthetic biology and they didn’t want to end with this visit we wanted to expand our activities. Even though we were not in the same country, we wanted to give them an opportunity to learn more about synthetic biology and laboratory work as this in not a part of the high school curriculum. Therefore, we wanted to give them an opportunity to choose the lectures they want to hear and by that take a proactive role in their education. 70% of students from the summer school (which means many more than only chemists and biologists) showed motivation to hear new lectures by our iGEM team. By fulfilling new questionnaires, lectures were chosen and our team members were holding them. We find it very important to transfer knowledge from young iGEM scientists to high school students. By transferring knowledge peer-to-peer, (college) student-to-(high school) student knowledge gap which is present between professors and students can be avoided. Pleasant atmosphere and iGEM students who understand the struggle of high school students showed to be very successful for conveying information (8).
If they were provided with these lectures by their high school teachers, they would not have been that relaxed, would not have asked so many questions they asked and consequently would not have learnt that much. Interestingly, some of the students could not attend the Skype lecture, but they asked their mates to record it so it could be seen afterwards! At the end of the lecture, they asked for additional Skype lectures.
The first Skype lecture covered the basic principles and laboratory techniques of genetic engineering. Other lectures went even more in depth, covering topics like CRISPR-Cas9. Each was held by a different team member. It was shown again that students like talking to our iGEM members as even larger number of students have listened to the lecture – either live or the recording. The knowledge, interest and curiosity was successfully passed to the students as they asked us dozens of questions (9).
Additionally, after finishing these lectures we offered (among other ideas) live lab tour which was met with high approval and interest. Therefore, we decided to show the labs and some common techniques and laboratory procedures (for example, changing the media in safety cabinet, isolation of plasmids, agarose electrophoresis, and so on) (10).
To our great joy, one of the attendants of the lectures decided to go step further – trying to establish an iGEM team in Montenegro. She organized a meeting with Darko Pajović, President of the Parliament of Montenegro, a biologist by education, and discussed the issue with him. We are very proud of her and we hope we are one of the reasons she decided for that big step (11).
Science and Arts
Apart from the work to inspire new generations of young scientists and establishment of new iGEM team, we wanted to introduce synthetic biology to a wider community in a more approachable way. In our experience people have a negative reaction towards the GMO research, because of the huge negative media influence particularly in Europe. In order to engage and educate more people on synthetic biology, we decided to try to relate to people through more universal experience of being captivated by and enjoying art. Arts and synthetic biology are very much alike – mixing the colors everybody had in a way nobody did it before.
With this in mind we got in touch with an Argentinian contemporary artist dr. Laura Olalde, PhD. Although classically trained, she has devoted her later work to explore the parallels between art and natural sciences. A part of an award winning sci-art collective PROTEUS, she was visiting Slovenia to attend the festival City of Women, by painting the mural Mitochondrial Wall - a piece celebrating women, femininity and the quest for equality. She is currently involved in bacterial painting, a project addressing fluorescent bacteria not as a medium to be taken advantage off, but as a partner in the creative process, thus creating a cross species, human-bacterial, collaboration.
Becoming immersed in sci-art, we wanted to contribute something meaningful and perhaps lead the way for new forms of artistic expression. Laura was quite enthusiastic about exploring our technology as the new medium of the visual art. Our own visual expression was drawn directly on human cells with enhanced sensitivity and luminescence output. With the signal appearing and disappearing in a matter of minutes, our art expands not only in three, but in four dimensions, adding time as a key element and the final arbiter of our expression, reminding us to the words of our famous poet France Prešeren ''Življenje ječa, čas v nji rabelj hudi'', although without despair that he was expressing with those words. Mirroring life, time cannot be recovered once it has passed. In the immortal words of Felix Gonzales-Torres: ‘’We are a product of the time, therefore we give back credit where it is due: time.’’
The technique of mechanodrawing (TouchPaint), first imagined and explored in our lab, is not only a brand new artistic direction, but offers large technological potential as well: just try to imagine bacterial touch screens! But more importantly, art is a way to communicate our project and synthetic biology at large to the general public without the negative connotations that they normally associate it with (12).
Our sci-art engagement did not finish in our lab. We decided to go few steps further. Our team members attended a round table discussion about sci-art practices and interaction with the PROTEUS collective group. Artist dr. Laura Olalde and scientist dr. Diego Ferreiro (who participated live from Bueno Aires over Skype) were main guests and have talked about their experience of sci-art and our team members actively participated in the debate (13).
“This publication looks at art & science – an autonomous field uniting art and science which are typically thought to belong to two different worlds. However, these two domains have strong historical links, and if analysed in their totality, date back to the very beginning of human creativity, fueled by curiosity and ingenuity. Today more and more artists are drawing inspiration from science and using the latest technology and research in their art, while scientists and researchers are realizing the artistic elements of their work and finding ways to use art to communicate better with their stakeholders. Both striving to materialize the immaterial, art and science are constantly in motion and together they can lead to what is labelled the ‘third culture’.” – Art&Science Creative Fusion, European Commission, European Research Area.
We decided to break the stereotype of scientists involved only in science and not being interested in arts. For that reason and on Laura’s invitation, we decided to take part in the Mitochondrial Wall mural painting at Metelkova place in Ljubljana, which is a community mural, created by many artists and incorporating many ideas. We made suggestions to add a piece of our project to the mural, which was enthusiastically accepted and painted ourselves as well, a true collaboration between artists and scientists. Other than that, the mural has a strong metaphoric value, pointing out maternal information transfer, calling for respect of women and bringing attention to the importance of equality in other fields. As it is one of fundamental values our team stands for, we wanted to take part in it (14).