Ask Nici


Synthetic biology is a discipline in the field of sciences at the interface between biology and engineering, which inhabits a lot of challenges as well as huge potential. The field of synthetic biology is unknown to larger parts of the population. This makes it more difficult to deal with aspects such as regulation, social acceptance and ethics.
Our goal is to introduce a broader audience to synthetic biology, independent of age and prior knowledge, and show them the exciting world of science. To accomplish that, we talk about the basic concepts of biology to give everyone the opportunity to understand the background of synthetic biology and to give examples how it can be used to help humanity in a sustainable and efficient way. Therefore, we created a project called ‘Ask Nici’.

Creating ‘Ask Nici’

When creating ‘Ask Nici’, we first planned to address children of primary school age, e.g. between six and ten years old. However, due to the current corona situation, it was not possible for us to visit children in grades 1 to 4. In order to arouse interest in science, especially in children of this age, a suitable atmosphere is necessary. Children must have the possibility to move freely, try things out and “fiddle around”. However, due to the unpredictable situation and for the protection of the children, we decided against a personal visit. During further conversations with families, we realized that not only children but also adults are interested in simple explanations. That is why we decided to develop a project from which everyone benefits from.

When creating the concept, we noticed that children were curious about biology, and were often understandable of the given answers. That is why we created a podcast in which we answer questions that children asked us about biology and our work in the iGEM competition. ‘Ask Nici’ is a format in which questions about biology are answered in one to two minutes - without having to have any knowledge about biology. The episode length is aimed at the attention span of the children. Thereby, we answer various questions ranging from ‘What is DNA?’ to ‘Why do fireflies glow?’ or ‘How does a PCR test work?’. These questions are also related to the current corona pandemic and when left unanswered, can lead to uncertainty among people of every age. The fact that the questions were asked by children in primary school age shows that even they are worried or even frightened by the pandemic. By creating the ‘Ask Nici’ podcast, we contribute to the comprehension of biology and hope to support people in the process of regaining the trust in science and scientists in those difficult times.

Accessibility and Inclusion in ‘Ask Nici’

It was important for us to make the podcast easily accessible to everyone. In addition to the distribution via our social media channels, the podcast episodes will be aired on the radio. By streaming the podcast on the radio, we reach a broad variety of people, so that every listener could be introduced to synthetic biology in a few minutes without any additional effort.
In case someone misses an episode, wants to hear it again or is not able to receive the content by audio, we also offer our podcast episodes on YouTube and Instagram with subtitles and as a booklet. Thereby, we make it accessible to everyone who wants to listen or read our ’Ask Niki’ at any time.
Not only the technical accessibility is important, also the type of presentation form is relevant to reach a broader audience. By presenting the content in two variants: by reading or by listening, we include people and children who show difficulties reading, but also include hearing impaired people. Therefore, everyone has the opportunity to engage with ‘Ask Nici’ podcast by listening or using the subtitles in the videos or the corresponding PDF file, where all questions and answers are presented in an engaging form.

We designed the ‘Ask Nici’ as a booklet in PDF format that can be easily printed out and used by parents and teachers as a reference book after the podcast, but also as an independent information source. It has been distributed to public institutions such as the city library of Bielefeld or regional youth facilities. Visitors of the library can browse through the booklet, read the answers or scan the corresponding QR code, which leads to the podcast on YouTube.
Moreover, ‘Ask Nici’ is integrated in an educational program of the largest German biotechnology student association (btS). There, students have the opportunity to develop projects such as workshops or lectures in teamwork. One of these projects is the ‘science driving licence’. This is a teaching model implemented by members of the btS, which gives students the opportunity to try out various scientific experiments themselves and thereby explore the theoretical connections in a playful way. The materials as well as instructions and worksheets are summarized compactly in a suitcase and can be easily carried out to schools all over Germany. As part of this project, ‘Ask Nici’ will be integrated into lessons and enables our goal to arouse interest in science.
Like the iGEM competition, research is an international field and biology relates to everyone. That is why we decided that ‘Ask Nici’ is a project which we do not want to present solely in German. Our first step was to create the podcast in German and in English. Going further, we cooperated with several iGEM teams around the globe who supported us by translating ‘Ask Nici’. From Chinese to Dutch and 13 more languages, to increase the accessibility, so that everyone has the opportunity to get to know biology better.
‘Ask Nici’ has already been tested by children in other countries. We were able to gain initial experience through our cooperation with TU Delft. They tested the PDF file and confirmed that a large number of the questions were also asked by children in their region. Our answers were comprehensible due to the simplicity, but still go into depth. Especially the real-life examples were useful for the understanding of the biological background.
All in all, we have developed a project that is aimed at a wide range of people. From young children to adults, from impaired people to personal preference or different nationalities, everyone gets the opportunity to learn new things and get inspired by science. We've found a way to integrate science into everyday life by answering relevant questions easily and giving people access to science without any additional effort.

We thank all the teams for collaborating with us!