Human Practices

What is Human Practices (HP)?

"Human Practices is the study of how your work affects the world, and how the world affects your work."

— Peter Carr, Director of Judging

Through their Human Practices efforts, iGEM teams creatively engage with important issues "beyond the bench", relating (but not limited) to ethics, sustainability, social justice, safety, security, environmental impact and intellectual property rights. Such issues demand thoughtful public engagement and dialogue, educating while inviting public input to shape the direction of research.

iGEM teams approach these challenges in a wide diversity of ways. Teams' efforts often integrate into the technical aspects of their project, and have an influence upon their design decisions. For example, teams have engaged with potential users and stakeholders to better understand their needs, ranging from safety to access, to inform their technical design criteria.

Teams have also engaged with diverse communities to help shape the practice of synthetic biology across local and global scales. For example, teams have consulted and shared their experiences with constituents and policymakers in their own cities and countries, as well as international forums including United Nations treaty deliberations.

There have been many examples of human practices work that builds creative engagement with diverse communities and the environment. Teams have conducted environmental impact analyses, created museum exhibits, written intellectual property guides and children's books, facilitated "white hat" biosecurity investigations, held forums with legislators, and even performed street theatre. You can find many more inspiring examples below and in the teams' wiki pages.

Questions? Email us: executivehp [AT] igem [DOT] org

Tips for Teams

Think about HP at the beginning of your project. The most impressive projects are often inspired by their HP efforts.

  • Go beyond promoting synthetic biology. The most impressive teams engage seriously with values and perspectives beyond the synthetic biology community.
  • Do your research. If you're applying a method that has been used before (such as conducting a survey) find out the best practices and try to recruit an expert to help you.
  • Communicate clearly what you have done and why. Simple, concise and organized reporting helps the judges and teams better understand and appreciate your efforts.
  • Be an example for others. Consider what you can do to help other teams reuse and adapt your work.
  • Be creative! We love seeing innovative new approaches.

How You Will Be Evaluated

Like other parts of iGEM the goal is to convince and impress your peers and the judges!


HP is a mandatory element of projects for teams wishing to obtain a Silver or Gold medal, but all teams are expected to attempt some HP work. Be sure to go over the official medal criteria.

To qualify for a silver medal, teams must demonstrate how they have identified, investigated and addressed one or more Human Practices issues in the context of their project.

To qualify for a gold medal, teams must complete two of three requirements, one of which is additional Human practices work. To qualify for gold teams must expand on silver medal activities by demonstrating how the investigation of Human Practices issues has been integrated into the design and/or execution of their project.


Teams can also compete for two separate human practices prizes: Best Integrated Human Practices and Best Education and Public Engagement. These prizes are meant to recognize exceptional work in the two gold medal qualifying options above, respectively.

Teams are evaluated using four criteria, three shared between the prize and one unique to each prize.

Best Integrated Human Practices Best Education and Public Engagement
Was the work integrated into the project? Did the work establish a dialogue?
Does the work serve as an inspiring example to others?
Is the work documented in a way that others can build upon?
Was the work thoughtfully implemented? (did the team explain the context, rationale, prior work)

Exemplary Projects

You can find many examples of excellent work by teams from the last 4 years on iGEM's main Human Practices Page. Additional details for several teams can be found in the Judging Handbook.


2015 Best Integrated Human Practice

The 2015 Edinburgh team challenged themselves with human practices by the nature of the project they developed; drug testing kits which identify the purity of drugs; illegal and recreational, in order for drug users to identify the substances they would be taking. Therefore in addition to the biosafety, biosecurity and societal implication of the "synthetic biology" component of their project, the team also had to address the societal implications of providing drug users with a test to identify purity of the drugs they were planning to take. To accomplish this feat, the team developed an integrated program which fed back into the design of their biosensor by engaging with the general public, policymakers, ethicists, drug recovery specialists, and potential end users of the device. These dialogues were then reintegrated back into the design of the biosensor. It was both the breadth of discussions that the team had outside the lab and how they integrated those discussions back into the design of their biosensor that impressed the judges.


2015 Best Integrated Human Practices

The 2015 Bielefeld team's project was designed to produce paper testing strips to identify heavy metals in water and separately to test drinks for potential date rape drugs. Their integrated human practices project consisted of two separate projects. 1) Scenarios in form of newspaper articles based on actual news and interviews with experts. The scenario planning exercise was influenced by Bielefeld's participation with the SYNERGENE synbio futures project. 2) Analysis of the dual use and biosecurity implications of their project based on the current laws and recommendations from the international community. Both aspects of their HP project integrated their wet lab work into the questions they explored and subsequently the information they gained from their HP project fed back into the design of their final application. It was the integration of their "wet" lab work into the design of their HP project and then taking the results of their HP work and integrating that back into the final design of their iGEM project that most impressed the judges.

William and Mary

2015 Best Education & Public Engagement

The 2015 William and Mary team provides an excellent example of a complete and thorough education and public engagement project. While the education and public engagement activities did not directly relate to their "wet lab" work, they developed educational activities and kits based on feedback from public workshops they held in order to understand the public's understanding, concerns and hopes for synthetic biology. They developed 24 activities into an educational booklet which lists the procedure, background information, materials and cost for the activity, critical learning questions, and learning goals. An effort was made to keep the activities low-cost and based on materials easily accessible to teachers, making them adaptable for any age or educational background. The activities are also designed so that teachers with limited biology background could easily run them. One particular aspect of the project that impressed the judges was the ability of the teaching tools to be used by others and adapted in the future.


Synenergene is collaborating with iGEM teams to explore Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) and strengthen their Human Practices works. Find out more about how to be involved, including possible grants.
Building With Biology is providing tools to help iGEM teams facilitate and prototype public engagement
Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) Tools website is curating a toolkit for understanding the relationship between science, technology and society
How to choose your iGEM project (keeping Human Practices in mind) is a blog post by Andy Balmer, 2010 Sheffield Team Advisor and 2011 Judge

How did Human Practices Come To Be?

Understanding synthetic biology as a human practice, not just a product of science, is at the heart of iGEM. Human Practices (HP) has been formally integrated into iGEM since 2008, when it was introduced as a gold medal criteria and special prize. In 2013 a silver medal element of human practices was introduced to further recognize the importance of these efforts across all teams . In 2015, the human practices prize was separated into two distinct but related prizes: best integrated human practices and best education and public engagement. These prizes celebrate how Human Practices shapes the coupled social and technical elements of synthetic biology.

The term Human Practices was first introduced by investigators of the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (Synberc), however iGEM has become the global hub for examining and evolving the concept and its practice. Since then, complementary efforts such as 'responsible research and innovation' have also contributed significantly to the theory and practice of Human Practices at iGEM.

Human Practices Executive Committee

  • Megan Palmer, Stanford University
  • Todd Kuiken, Woodrow Wilson Center
  • Sam Weiss Evans, Harvard University
  • Peter Carr, MIT Lincoln Labs (Executive Judging Committee Point of Contact)
  • Kim de Mora, iGEM (iGEM Point of Contact)

Human Practices Advisory Group

Many members of the iGEM community have a diversity of expertise related to Human Practices. The Human Practices Advisory Committee members have agreed to be contacted by teams seeking guidance on specific elements of their human practices work. Please email the executive committee at executivehp [AT] igem [DOT] org to receive contact details.

Want to join the advisory group? Please email the executive HP committee with the subject line: "iGEM Human Practices advisory committee application"

Please include a short description of yourself, your experience, why you want to be involved and links to your relevant work/linkedin/social media profile.

  • Jane Calvert, University of Edinburgh
  • Peter Carr, MIT Lincoln Labs (Executive Judging Committee Point of Contact)
  • Sam Weiss Evans, Harvard University
  • Emma Frow, Arizona State University
  • David Lloyd, FREDsense Technologies
  • Terry Johnson, University of California, Berkeley
  • Linda Kahl, Biobricks Foundation
  • Todd Kuiken, Woodrow Wilson Center
  • Piers Millet,
  • Kim de Mora, iGEM (iGEM Point of Contact)
  • Kenneth A. Oye, MIT
  • Megan Palmer, Stanford University
  • Edward You, FBI