Team:UCC Ireland/Engagement


Public Engagement Summary

Since the beginning of planning our project, it was decided that engaging with the public in an array of settings would be central to all activities of our team. From teaching teens about synthetic biology, to talking to Synbio entrepreneurs, we were consistently trying not only to gain information from those more informed but also to impart the knowledge we had to younger generations.

Through the UCC Societies Summer Camp and Secondary School presentations we were enabled to teach school age children about the creativity which can be associated with Synbio along with some of the more specific Synbio applications in society. Producing our Golden Rice Video enabled us to teach the students about how simply putting a gene from a plant into a bacterium, could facilitate the risk of many blindnesses being dramatically reduced. Presenting genetic modification in a concise and simple way really aided the students in not only understanding what synthetic biology is, but also in coming up with some of their own ideas for how it could solve a variety of problems across the world. Our original song I like it Lactis conveyed what Synbio can do especially with the GRAS organism Lactococcus Lactis which we used in our project. To add to all of this, next month we will also be partaking in events around Cork City for Science Week. This will involve giving a workshop based around DNA and also teaching about synthetic biology to inspire an interest among a variety of young people across our city.

Our involvement with the Synbio accelerator IndieBio allowed us to truly appreciate how synthetic biology research can be applied to solve real world problems such as malnutrition. We also came to grasp the logistics involved in setting up or working as part of a Synbio startup.

The fundraising component of our public engagement was definitely among the most enjoyable elements of our project. From getting drastic haircuts, to running 5km while getting powder thrown at us, to freefalling through the clouds we had a fantastic time while also making a contribution to numerous worthwhile causes.

Secondary School Visit

During the planning stage of our project we decided that it would be an interesting addition to our project if we worked at educating secondary school students to evoke a positive interest in synthetic biology. The current junior cycle and senior cycle curriculum does not contain a lot of theory on the applications of synthetic biology in society. Our talk was given to 180 students composing girls and boys from two local schools (Coláiste an Spioraid Naomh and Christ King Secondary School). The groups we spoke to included 4th year and 5th year students (i.e. 15-17 years old). The aim of the talk was to impart knowledge on synthetic biology which could facilitate some young people to go further in research in this exciting area and potentially solve many societal issues.

In order to help the students’ grasp what genetic modification is we produced an informational video on Golden Rice.

Another part of our presentation involved speaking to the students about a use of synthetic biology other than for scientific reasons. We presented them with the practice of bacterial painting, which is an example of how genetic modification can be exploited as a creative outlet.

Our presentation was designed to be around 30 minutes long. There were four main components to our presentation:

1. What is iGEM? 2. What is synthetic biology? 3. Ethical issues and debate on genetic modification 4. Our project

Before the presentation we handed out questionnaires to gain insight into any prior knowledge of Synbio the students had. In addition, we evaluated how they felt towards the use of GM in several industries.

The first question was “Have you ever heard of synthetic biology?”

The term synthetic biology was unfamiliar to the vast majority of students (91%). We also asked the students if they would be interested in the pursuit of a career in science. Half of the students expressed an interest and this was higher than what was expected.

To learn more about what the students knew of genetic modification we asked if there were any genetically modified products which they had heard of before.
Some examples of GM products they were familiar with are as follows:

  • GM fruit and vegetables (e.g: seedless oranges, grapes and bananas)
  • GM meat
  • Penicillin
  • Make up
  • Crops to increase yield
  • Probiotic yoghurt
  • Certain types of cheese
  • Anti-ageing cream
  • Food products with increased shelf life (e.g.: tomatoes)

The students indicated then if they agreed with the use of genetic modification in the following areas: Food Medicine Cosmetics Environment

It was clear that among the group the only widespread acceptance of genetic modification was for use in medicine. The data we gathered was consistent with expected results. In the questionnaire we also tried to identify why exactly the students disagreed with GM for the various industries. Several of the reasons included;

  • “There is too much uncertainty of the effects on humans and the wider effects on the environment”
  • “Food should be natural”
  • “Natural is safer”
  • “Could make people sick”
  • “Food should not contain chemicals or be modified”
  • “Could cause animals to have a bad life” (in reference to GM for environment)
  • “Someone could have an allergic reaction”
  • “Organic is always better”
  • “Because our environment is beautiful and should not be harmed”
  • “They (GM products) are not what they were originally meant to be”
  • “We already interfere enough by accident, we will cause more harm than good”

Even though the data on the first question indicates that the students did not know what synthetic biology was, our interaction with them indicated otherwise. The term synthetic biology was new, however their knowledge of genetic modification proved to be quite expansive. Most, if not all of their prior knowledge came from media controversies. There were several GM topics which sparked debate amongst the students, including dog cloning, designer babies, Hela cells and nature versus nurture

At the end of the talk we handed out questionnaires to determine what the students took from the presentation. The first question asked to the students was whether their opinion with regard to genetic modification had changed subsequent to the presentation. 80% said that their opinion had changed.

The second question asked to them was if they had found the Golden Rice video helpful in gaining an understanding of synthetic biology. 91% believed that the video was helpful.

As one of the major components of our project involves the development of a therapeutic platform for leishmaniasis vaccine we thought it would be apt to ask the students if they had heard of this NTD before presentation. 98% had not heard of leishmaniasis

We also asked the students if they had any unique ideas on how Synbio could be used to solve any societal issue (in reference to GM for food)

  • “Lessen the need to slaughter animals and cause less extinction” (in reference to GM for food)
  • “Solve world hunger” (in reference to GM for food)
  • “Make food taste better” (in reference to GM for medicine)
  • “Stop people being born with disabilities and mutations” (in reference to GM for medicine)
  • “It could be used to prevent people being born with hereditary diseases” (in reference to GM for medicine)
  • “Remove cancer gene”
  • “Cloning extinct animals and plants”

On the whole we found our visits to schools to be very fruitful. We were delighted and surprised with the level of engagement with each group. The students illustrated a real interest in genetic modification.

Regina Walsh and Seema Subedi in front of Colaiste an Spioraid Naoimh before the talk

A view of our presentation from student’s perspective

Three students from Christ King Secondary School holding Eppendorf’s

Synbio Class at University Summer Camp for Kids

Each year our University hosts a summer camp for children aged 12 - 16 years. Modules run during the camp vary each year and are chosen to reflect the many interests catered for at university. Although most years include a science and engineering themed module, there had yet to be a Synthetic Biology based class available. This year, UCC iGEM worked with the University Summer camp to include Synbio activities for the kids at camp.

Over the course of 7 weeks, over 250 children attended camp and took part in our Synbio activities as part of the camp Science module. Two 1.5 hour sessions were held where kids got the chance to learn about the structure and function of DNA, how scientists study DNA in the lab and how genes have been used to genetically engineer organisms. Kids got to extract DNA from their own cheek cells and study digested DNA on an agarose gel. After learning how the process of genetic engineering was carried out and discussing some examples, kids also got to paint pictures with genetically modified bacteria expressing fluorescent proteins. Kids debated the pros and cons of genetically engineered products such as synthetic milk. They also got to play a game to encourage thinking of ways organisms could be modified by genetic engineering.

Painting with Genetically Modified Bacteria

E. coli expressing fluorescent proteins were used to create living paintings or “Bio Art”. Modified bacteria were grown in pure culture overnight in 10ml LB broth. Kids could paint with this culture using pipette tips or plastic loops. Examples of paintings may be seen below.

Protocol for BioArt

  • Competent DH5a E. coli cells were transformed with biobricks BBa_ J04450 and BBa_E0240 to express RFP and GFP respectively.
  • Cells were grown overnight on Chloramphenicol containing media.
  • Overnight stocks were prepared using single coloured colonies in 10ml LB Broth tubes with 4ug/ml Chloramphenicol.
  • Stocks were incubated in shaking incubator for 16 hours at 37°C
  • Stocks which showed visible colour after overnight incubation were used as bacteria paint Paintings were done on LB agar with Chloramphenicol (4ug/ml) and incubated overnight, inverted at 37°C.
  • Paintings could be done using a variety of instruments, including pipette tips, toothpicks, plastic loops or cotton buds.

Tips to note:

  • It was important not to overlap the GFP and RFP expressing bacteria on the plates as one microbe usually dominated and grew over the other.
  • Care had to be taken to ensure instruments used to paint with GFP expressing bacteria were not used to paint with RFP expressing bacteria to ensure stock remained pure.
  • Stocks could be stored at 4°C and used for several weeks.
  • Plates should be dried thoroughly before beginning painting to avoid smudging.
  • Using the minimal amount of stock to draw lines gave the best effect.

Game: Genetic Engineering Lucky Bag

  • Kids were given 3 pieces of paper and asked to write down 3 different genetic traits on each. These could be realistic such as “Ability to fly” or fictional such as “can read minds”.
  • All sheets were handed up, shuffled and re-distributed at random.
  • Kids were then assigned a living creature which would have the genetic traits they had been given.
  • The kids then drew a picture of how their genetically modified organism might look.
  • Although unrealistic, the kids enjoyed considering what a genetic trait was and how a creature could be modified with both positive and negative outcomes.

Talk to undergraduate students at UCC

In UCC on the 12th of October, there was a talk in UCC hosted by the Biochemistry and Biotechnology Society. The event featured information on a wide array of summer research opportunities available to Biochemistry, Biomedical Science and Pharmacy students in our university. A unique aspect of the talk was that it was UCC students themselves who spoke on the experience they had gained. Two members of our team, Donnacha Fitzgerald and Kevin Ryan were delighted to agree to speak at the talk representing UCC iGEM 2016. Included in their presentation was a briefing on how and why they wanted to be involved in iGEM. In addition they spoke about the ample skills they had obtained and enhanced through their involvement. The aforementioned skills included the ability to design and troubleshoot experiment and utilising a wide variety of tools to be able to present our information/data in the most visually appealing and engaging way. Through our expansive public engagement and outreach, communication skills and fundraising skills were also gained.

Subsequent to the presentation numerous students were asking questions and seeking further information on the iGEM competition. For our team it was a great experience to present a briefing on our project to other science students in advance of the jamboree in Boston!

Talk by James Watson

In the early part of the summer on the 15th June the Nobel Prize Laureate, molecular biologist and geneticist Dr. James Watson was cordially invited to our University to open a new building. The said building is named after Dr. Watson in recognition of his extensive work to pursue knowledge in an array of modern areas of research. Given his work specifically in genetics and cancer.

DNA is integral to synthetic biology, we thought it would be insightful for us to attend the event. Our team was delighted to be able to attend the opening as well as the preceding talk given by the Nobel laureate. The aforementioned talk was entitled “Towards Curing Incurable Cancer”. Despite the fact he is 88, Dr. Watson illustrated a keen awareness in the ongoing developments in cancer research. He emphasised that he believes the acquisition of a “cure” for cancer is key to its eradication as opposed to the continuous improvement of treatments only. To be specific, he has personally researched into eliminating the anti-oxidative defences in incurable cancers.

After the talk, the official opening took place which featured speeches, canapes and photos alike. After introductions facilitated by the President of UCC, Dr. Michael Murphy, we felt extremely lucky to be able to engage with the Nobel Laureate for a few moments. Dr. Watson was familiar with and very positive about the iGEM competition. It was a privilege to be able to listen to and meet with this renowned scientist. We managed to capture the occasion in a photo with the Nobel Laureate which can be seen below.

Irish Science Week

The Irish Science Week is an annual event held around the country where there are several different free events throughout the week (13th to 20th November). This year we will be taking part on two different events at University College Cork and a nearby community. On 13th of November, we will be running a workshop on the introduction to DNA and genetic engineering. Participants will have the chance to extract banana DNA and also paint with bacteria using bacterial paints we’ve made over the summer for the Summer Camp.

The 2nd event will be held at Neptune Stadium on the 20th of November. This community centre is based in the North side of the city which classifies as a “disadvantaged area”. The presence of DEIS (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) participating schools shows that due to the socio-economic stance of the area, the education level here is poorer compared to other parts of Cork City. With our stand on basic information on iGEM, synthetic biology and Leishmaniasis in Honduras, we hope to encourage and invoke an interest in synthetic biology among the students and the locals. Our key focus will be on the emphasis of the importance of further education.

Above: A simple poster to introduce Honduras and Leishmaniasis to the general public


The UCC iGEM team has had a continuing relationship with IndieBio EU, since our team was first entered in 2014. IndieBio is the world’s first Synthetic Biology accelerator. The European HQ is based in Cork which is known as the “Carbon Valley” of Synbio. IndieBio is short for Independent Biology, a new way for scientists and entrepreneurs to shape their own destiny and make something that matters. It provides seed funding and mentorship to drive this transition in only three to four months.

At the start of June, the CEO of Spira, Elliot Roth got in contacts with us. He invited us to the lab where he was working, to introduce us to his company. During the visit we learned a lot about how and why Spira as a company came to be. It not only gave us an insight into different ways of how a company might start, but also taught us that if you have an idea anything is possible. All you have to strive for is the desire to make your idea happen.

Spira are making a fast, convenient food in the form of a nutrient shake packed with protein using spirulina, an ancient microalgae grown by the Aztecs. On our first meeting, we also had the chance to look at the process of making Spira, and give feedback with regard to the aesthetics of the product.

In addition we learned about all the other fascinating startups whose development is funded by SOSV such as Peer to Peer Probiotics and Anú Dairy.

On the 28th of July we were involved in the organisation of the IndieBio Eu Demo Day and Summer Party. We helped out at registration desk and running miscellaneous errands throughout the evening. Three of the team were in charge of running the Livestream of the event on Periscope. This involved asking many scientists and CEOs about their work on synthetic biology. One of our opening interviews was with Dragons Den investor Sean O’Sullivan who founded SOSV. He gave us valuable insights into starting a business such as, what investors’ look for in a CEO and the comparison of failure and success rate of start-ups.

Our involvement with IndieBio enabled us to gain invaluable expertise from past iGEM members that went on to develop companies based on their iGEM project. One such past member was Prateek Garg, who took part in iGEM 2015 with a postgraduate team representing Paris-Battencourt. He is now the CEO of Peer to Peer Probiotics who fortify foods with enhanced probiotics that you can grow at home and share in a peer-to-peer fashion.

When speaking to Prateek we were delighted to receive ample invaluable advice with regard to the iGEM competition. He informed us that in addition to him, there were several other scientists in his company alone who had partaken in iGEM. He gave us a brief illustration of what their iGEM project was based on and imparted many lessons which he and his counterparts had learned. He indicated the importance of keeping record of all the relevant biobricks, throughout the summer. Maintaining a story element to the project was an aspect he placed key emphasis on; i.e. not only focusing on the wet lab of the project but also on the applications of the project. He advised that work on the wiki be commenced as early as possible, which we learnt in due course was excellent advice! Obtaining some guidance from a member of a successful iGEM team gave us great confidence in completing the tasks necessary to progress our project.

IndieBio Survey

Our team also decided to conduct a survey to investigate the relationship of the creation of start-ups and iGEM or DIY Bio. As previously mentioned, IndieBio (a synthetic biology start-up accelerator) has its european operations based in Cork. Every summer there is an accelerator programme in which chosen start-up companies receive seed-funding and lab space to develop their ideas. Having met with the IndieBio teams and hearing about some of their previous IGEM experiences, we were interested in seeing if there is a correlation between iGEM and the creation of start-up companies.

We sent out surveys to the start-ups in this year’s accelerator programme. A total of 11 start-ups replied to our survey. The start-ups were Moirai Biodesign, Benthic labs, GlowDX, Saphium Biotechnology GmbH, Ageria, Briefcase Biotech GmbH, Magenta Biolabs, CRI, Spira, Hyasynth Bio and MilisBio.

One of our initial questions was “What is the educational/ professional backgrounds of your co-founders?” The answers for this were mixed but the majority of the co-founders were from a life-science educational background.

We subsequently were interested in knowing if any of the co-founders had previously been involved in iGEM in any capacity. Almost half of the co-founders had (see below).

There appeared to be a mixed response to the next question which asked on a scale of 1(very valuable) -5(not at all) how valuable iGEM is for the creation of biotechnology start-ups.

Some of the respondents felt iGEM was valuable and led to the creation of their companies. Others however didn’t think it was as valuable

We then focused on investigating to what extent they had known about iGEM prior to IndieBio.


Over 54% of the respondents were either highly influenced or very aware of iGEM prior to entering the startup accelerator. This may seem to contradict the previous question since 45% of respondents have answered that they were highly influenced by iGEM whereas in the previous question 0% of respondents felt that iGEM was highly valuable for the creation of start-ups. This discrepancy may be due to wording of the questions as the previous question may have been interpreted as the projects coming directly from iGEM projects whereas here the startup’s idea may have been influenced by iGEM or the co-founders met at iGEM.

We are also interested in the correlation of the creation of start-ups and the DIY Bio movement. There appears to be significant overlap between the two from the results.

Several of the startups responded with the name of the DIY Bio lab they were involved in or previously helped start up.

Our last quantitative question inquired to what extent the co-founders were aware of the DIY Bio movement prior to IndieBio.

There again appeared to be a strong link between the creation of startups and the DIY Bio movement.

We concluded our survey with a qualitative question where we asked respondents to describe any other factors that influenced them to start up a company. Some of the answers included looking for “alternatives to academia” and “academic career path was unappealing and almost equally as risky”.

It appears that there is a strong link between the creation of startups and iGEM/ DIY Bio on the basis of the results of this survey which may be indicative of the role iGEM will play in the rise of the next generation of startup companies.

I like it Lactis

During the course of the summer, one of our team members James Meeke wrote a musical piece called ‘ I like it Lactis’. James assembled a guitar version of the song which he played himself, a violin version of the song which was played by another member of our team, Kevin Ryan and the lyrics were sung by one of James friend, Renilson Mapele. While, another one of our team member, Seema Subedi worked on the lyrics video which is available to view on the front page of our wiki and also on our Youtube channel. The idea of the ‘I like it Lactis’ song was to interest people about our project through music and to bridge science to art.

We contacted the radio station in our university called UCC98.3FM and they were happy to allow us to record the song in their studio. James, Reni, and Kevin also performed the song live on the radio station and also spoke about iGEM and how the competition worked. Below is a link to the recorded version of the ‘I like it Lactis’ song and the radio interview.

Lyrics: Intro

Verse 1 Genetic aberration Uncontrolled replication Tumour grows exponentially Science must find a better therapy

Chorus Ooooooooh, I like it. Ya I like it lactis Genetic manipulation With therapeutic application

Verse 2 Bacteria hold the answer To treating cancer faster Protein producing machines For blocking harmful oncogenes

Solo Chorus 3X Bridge Chorus

Charity Funraisers

This year as part of our outreach we decided to fundraise for cancer charities in Ireland. The aim of this part of our project was to explore and act on steps necessary to help our community. Mainly by going out of our ways to do things we wouldn’t normally do, from running a 5km colour dash to doing a tandem skydive.

Colour dash

At the end of June, five members of the team took part in a 5k run for the Irish Cancer Society, called the Colour Dash. Each kilometre of the run has a colour dedicated to it which represents a side of cancer; either a cancer we need to find a cure for or, a cause of celebration such as cancer survivorship.

Ponytail Campaign

As part of her birthday celebrations one team member Seema Subedi decided to raise fund for the Rapunzel Foundation, which is a charity organisation that works to improve the lives of those living with hair loss (alopecia). She took part in the Ponytail campaign by cutting 15 inches off her hair.

Tandem Charity Skydive

On Tuesday 13th September four team members took part in a 10,000ft tandem charity skydive in aid of Breakthrough Cancer Research which has done ground breaking work in the field of cancer. In the lead up to the big day each member worked to raise €480+ in funds.

Our Just Giving page can be found via the following link:

Here are quotes from two team members explaining why they wanted to partake in the charity skydive:

James Meeke: I've fallen off of bikes and down staircases, so falling out of a plane is the next logical step! Doing it In aid of a worthy organisation such as Breakthrough Cancer Research makes it all the more rewarding!

Donnacha Fitzgerald: I'm doing the skydive because I've always had the urge to do something as crazy as fall from 10,000 feet, and because I am 100% confident that Breakthrough Cancer Research are more than a worthy investment in the future battles against the toughest cancers!"

Charity Quiz

In addition to the various other ways we raised money and awareness for charity, we also hosted a charity quiz in our university with multiple societies fundraising for Breakthrough Cancer Research. It was a tremendous success as over 70 participants entered the quiz and we raised over 400 euro for the charity.