Team:Hong Kong HKU/Communication


IISER-Pune-India x HKU x Stony Brook x Toulouse INSA-UPS: iGEM Cyanobacteria Symposium 2021

A screenshot of the Cyanobacteria Symposium 2021 and participants

The Cyanobacteria Symposium 2021 was an online event that brought together iGEM teams utilising cyanobacteria in their projects; co-organised by iGEM IISER-Pune-India, iGEM Stony Brook, iGEM Toulouse INSA-UPS, and iGEM Hong Kong HKU. The symposium officially spanned two days from August 14 - 15. Day one featured a jamboree-style presentation event from all participating teams on their respective projects, while day two consisted of knowledge exchange activities, such as educational talks on cyanobacteria, wiki building, and lab safety workshops. Three judges were invited to provide feedback on presented projects: Prof. Gordon Taylor, oceanography professor from Stony Brook University; Prof. Daniel Ducat, plant biology professor from Michigan State University; and Prof. Himadri Pakrasi, plant biology professor from Washington University. In addition to offering comments on projects on the first day, Prof. Tiago Selão from Nottingham University was also a guest speaker for the second day.

On day one of the symposium, seven teams hailing from all parts of the world presented their synthetic biology and cyanobacteria-related solution to an existing problem. Each team had 10 minutes to present their ideas, followed by a 10-minute Q&A and judging session. We presented our project to the judges with heavy focus on the wet lab components, including cyanobacteria strain features, plasmid construction, and how our systems function. Potential future improvements were also included to give judges more insight into the impact of our project.

The Q&A session that followed each presentation had judges provide teams with meaningful suggestions to their design. For example, our team altered our container design to allow for increased enzyme kinetics after Prof. Selão gave us suggestions regarding the optimal temperature for PETase activity. Prof. Ducat then followed up with an idea to modify our system for it to also fit in a household scenario. This allowed us to expand on our ideas about our project’s applications, inspiring us to come up with designs appropriate for household waste treatment.

The highlight of day two of the symposium was Prof. Selao’s talk on PCC 11901, a newly discovered marine strain isolated in Singapore. In his research, PCC 11901 was proven to be an ideal chassis due to its fast growth, high stress tolerance, and ease of transformation. PCC 11901 can tolerate temperatures up to 42℃ and 10% NaCl due to its marine nature, and is naturally competent. The strain was proven to be previously undescribed through sequencing, but was placed in the genus as S. elongatus: Synechococcus. The discovery supports this cyanobacteria strain as a suitable candidate in green biotechnology due to its unique combination of advantageous properties, most importantly being able to grow a quantifiable biomass in a short period of time.

The cyanobacteria symposium was a highly relevant knowledge exchange event for iGEM teams that work with cyanobacteria - ourselves included. It allowed us to gain broader understanding for the various uses of cyanobacteria in synthetic biology, as well as to provide an opportunity for us to reflect and improve upon our projects. We are confident all participating teams learnt something new by the end of the event.

Click here to watch the day 1 recording on our YouTube channel

Click here to watch the day 2 recording on our YouTube channel

IISER-Pune-India x HKU x Stony Brook: ‘The Future is Synbio’ Webinar

Continuing a second collaboration with Team IISER-Pune-India and Stony Brook, ‘The Future is Synbio’ was an exploratory session organised for secondary school students of all backgrounds globally. It was held on September 18th and consisted of four main parts: 3 presentations and 1 mini-game, during which iGEM team members introduced basic synthetic biology concepts and the iGEM Competition.

Vidisha Hate from team IISER Pune India started the webinar with a session on ‘Introduction to synthetic biology’. She started by making a connection between COVID-19 testing and synthetic biology, making it more relatable for the audience. The Central Dogma, standard biological parts, metabolic pathway engineering and biosensors are a few topics that were briefly covered for students to identify current techniques and advancements in synthetic biology.

Lamisa Musarat from team Stony Brook then presented on ‘What is iGEM?’, where she introduced iGEM; detailing different competition deliverables including wet lab and dry lab work, the iGEM Giant Jamboree, and what students can expect to get out of joining the iGEM Competition.

After Lamisa’s introduction to iGEM, Isabella Kroon, a member of our team, delivered a talk on ‘Microbes and Society’. A number of important key concepts were discussed, such as the definition of microbes, different types of microbes, and their importance based on the values they bring to nature and society. Additionally, the role of microbes in synthetic biology and recent advancements involving its use was also covered to give the students a broader understanding on microbes. Asking students for their thoughts on how microbes benefited society helped spark a discussion and engage students.

Last but not least, a mini-game called ‘Guess the scientist!’ was played to let the audience unwind from learning and to signify the end of the webinar. It was moderated by Lamisa Musarat from team Stony Brook, who made students guess the names of three male and three female scientists through mentioning their facts, such as what they were most well-known for.

From this experience, we learnt how to deliver a presentation to an audience who may have no prior knowledge in the proposed topic. For instance, presenters should take their time to explain each concept thoroughly and use less technical jargon to ensure the audience can understand new and unfamiliar concepts that they have never encountered before. Presenters should also reserve time to check whether their audience has knowledge or understanding of materials throughout the presentation. This way, the audience can obtain the maximum value from the session. In addition to understanding, keeping the audience interested, especially for younger people, is an important factor. This can be done by sharing fun facts and incorporating games into your presentation.

We would like to thank all speakers and organisers from Team IISER Pune India and Team Stony Brook, and participants for attending this event. We hope that it has increased the awareness of synthetic biology and its significance among youth.

Click here to watch the webinar recording on our YouTube channel

HKU iGEM Policy Case Competition for HK Secondary Schools (HKUiPCC)

Our conversations with synthetic biology professors made us realise how the lack of synthetic biology policy in Hong Kong was a limitation to synbio research. It was surprising that even us, an iGEM team conducting research in synbio, knew little about synthetic biology policy. We organised HKUiPCC to offer secondary school students insights into the world of synthetic biology: the science, its applications, and the policy that can promote or restrict it. It also served as a learning opportunity for us to interact with and understand synthetic biology applications and policy within the context of Hong Kong.

HKUiPCC brought secondary school participants from over 10 schools together to identify and address policy gaps in synthetic biology in Hong Kong. In the course of the competition, students attended Zoom workshops on synthetic biology, policy making, and scientific communication, all led by experts in their fields. In this project, students ventured beyond the classroom in the perspective of policymakers, a major stakeholder group in synthetic biology, and developed their own cases to tackle various problems in HK’s policy gaps. The competition spanned from 2 - 15 August 2021 and highlighted the significance of synthetic biology and its regulations in the contemporary global scene.

On Day 1 of HKUiPCC, participants were given an overview of synthetic biology by the HKU iGEM team. Kenneth Ng, MPhil candidate and HKU iGEM advisor, then introduced students to the current synbio situation in Hong Kong. Jenna Chow from the Mills Fabrica introduced sustainability in agriculture and fashion using synthetic biology from a more business-oriented standpoint.

Day 2 of HKUiPCC was related to policy making in Hong Kong and the world. Dr Felicity Keiper from BASF, a multinational chemical company, provided students with new perspectives on policy making by giving a talk on international synthetic biology policies. Wayne Wong from the Business Environment Council (BEC) then moved on to talk about sustainable science policies, highlighting stakeholder considerations by comparing different priorities in the global and local scope. The day was concluded by Gagandeep Singh, assistant lecturer from HKU CAES, who inspired students with effective and creative ways to deliver online presentations.

Day 3 started with Dr. Timothy Bonebrake who presented on wildlife like pangolins and butterflies, which illustrated the current situation of conservation, environmental science and urban ecology in Hong Kong. James Chang and his colleagues from GEB Impact Technology then gave an introduction to the role of algae in driving the economy, giving insight not only to students but also to iGEM team members as our main project is related to the use of cyanobacteria as a chassis for utilising solar energy. We then allowed participants to join a networking session, where they had a chance to facilitate communication among their teammates before the deadline of policy memo submission.

12 teams of participants were separated into 2 tracks of the competition: the environmental track and the business track. Background papers were provided as guidelines for students to start their research. After the end of the 3-day workshops, teams were required to submit a 2-page policy memo that outlines their key issues (including background information, proposed implementation, stakeholders involved, and impact of their proposal etc.), along with PowerPoint slides to address their policy proposals on their respective areas. A panel of judges then provided feedback and the top 7 teams were chosen to advance into the finals on August 15, in which participants have 10 minutes to present their project live on Zoom, followed by 5 minutes of Q&A session from judges. While participants await results of the competition, Stan Shea from BLOOM Association gave a keynote speech on marine conservation, for example how sharks also play a part in this equation.

The Champion team was Ms Wong, Ms Lai, Ms Lui, and Ms Yuen from Marymount Secondary School, who gave a presentation on DIY synbio products and a proposed consumer goods rating system. They were also awarded with the Most Adoptable Policy Award. This team will be granted internship opportunities with Lung Fu Shan Environmental Education Centre, where they will learn about the operations of the company in environmental research and education.

The first-runner-up team was Ms Chan, Ms Ku, Ms Lau, and Ms Li from Marymount Secondary School as well, who outlined their case on regulating CRISPR to control reproduction of the invasive apple snails in Hong Kong. The team will be interning under the Mills Fabrica and working under different departments to get a taste of how the company plays a part in sustainable development.

The second-runner-up team was Mr Hsu, Mr Yau and Mr Yuen from St Stephen’s College, who talked about regulation of genetically modified crops among farmers and patent rights. Their team was also awarded with the Best Presentation Award and Most Creative Presentation Award.

We would like to thank all sponsors, speakers, judges, participants and organisers for making this a successful event. Through HKUiPCC, students have been given a chance to research, design, and present their findings, as well as gain a lot of insight from experts from many walks of life. We believe that the competition has encouraged students to develop their critical thinking skills and present innovative policy solutions to issues that currently entangle the realm of environmental synthetic biology. In the future, we will consider offering the event to more participants, and even organise a competition for university students.

Click here to view our HKUiPCC website!

TAU Israel x HKU iGEM: ASYV-iGEM Collaboration

A screenshot of team members from iGEM HKU, TAU and MTU during the June 7th Session

iGEM TAU Israel initiated an educational collaboration with the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV) in Rwanda. The village, which was originally started for victims of the Rwandan Genocide against the Tutsi in 1994, is now a youth village for vulnerable teenage orphans from Rwanda.

Between May 26th to June 16th 2021, six teaching sessions were delivered to youth at ASYV studying biology and engineering. The main goal of these sessions was to introduce to students the world of synthetic biology and iGEM, while engaging with the students in a purposeful manner. Other participating teams included TU Delft (Netherlands), MTU (Ireland), HKU (Hong Kong) and Vilnius (Lithuania).

On June 7th 2021, five of our team members conducted a session for a group of youth. We chose to discuss the topic of malaria as it is a prevalent issue in the region. This meant that students were likely familiar with the problem - they could understand the presented content, and would be able to share community-relevant information about it.

As a multi-faceted problem, our session covered the transmission of malaria, its associated health risks, and current solutions. We started by asking students questions about malaria to identify their level of understanding and maintain engagement. To overcome language barriers and for the students to better visualise scientific concepts, we used analogies to help explain key concepts. One analogy we used to describe the workings of DNA was how a gene is like a cookbook, while mRNA is like a recipe that contains instructions to make the cake.

When speaking about its solution, we introduced concepts of gene drives and CRISPR-Cas9 (including what CRISPR and RNA are) to students using illustrations and videos. Furthermore, we explained how CRISPR and gene drives can work together to make mosquitoes resistant to malaria -- the synthetic biology aspect to our presentation. To reinforce and develop on the concepts learnt, we carried out an activity where the students formed small groups and discussed risks associated with gene drives based on the information given out during the presentation.

It was delightful to see so many of the students actively participating in the discussion, signifying their interest in this breakthrough solution -- and we believe that this is highly helped by the fact that we took our time to speak, pause and ask questions to check their comprehension of the points mentioned while presenting.

After the activity, we concluded the session by offering additional information on different types of gene drives to supplement post-activity discussion, as well as some concluding questions that built upon the presentation to help them consolidate what they have learned.

We would like to sincerely thank iGEM TAU for inviting us to participate in this meaningful activity, as well as the ASYV team for making this possible!

Click here to view the ASYV guidebook which contains useful information on what to consider when conducting initiatives like this!

Koding Kingdom x HKU iGEM

A screenshot of team members from iGEM HKU, TAU and MTU during the June 7th Session

As a part of our continued efforts here at iGEM-HKU to spread awareness and understanding of synthetic biology, we partnered with Koding Kingdom, a tech academy that provides fun and interactive coding courses for school-aged children in Hong Kong, to create week-long bioinformatics summer camps tailored for secondary school students. HKU iGEM was responsible for planning and delivering all content and classes, and Koding Kingdom would be managing marketing and advertising of the courses.

Anticipating students from diverse backgrounds of biology proficiencies, the HKU iGEM team designed two separate camps: a junior camp lasting for 1 week catering to students with little to no prior knowledge in biology or computer programming; and a senior camp lasting 2 weeks for students with some experience in one or more of these subjects.

The junior camp curriculum introduces students to basic concepts and ideas in genetic biology, such as cell structures and the Central Dogma, and includes real-life applications of bioinformatics like The Human Genome Project, and also covers basic Python concepts -- the culmination of which would be a final project.

The senior camp, whilst also sharing certain elements of the junior camp curriculum, aimed to cultivate students with a greater understanding of bioinformatics and cell biology. Generic topics such as those related to themes of genetics, coding and bioinformatics were included; additionally, topics such as bacterial genomics, phylogenetics, and programming and sequencing techniques in bioinformatics, though often avoided for in-depth analysis at high school, were also amongst the list of topics designated for the senior camp.

Throughout our design and development of our curriculum, we were mindful of catering to diverse learners, engaging the classroom & keeping students interested. As such, we deployed an array of strategies to ensure fun and effective learning - take a look at a few of our strategies below:

Example of a slide involving the use of analogies

To cater to first-time learners that may perceive biology, or science in general, to be rather intimidating, we tried to smoothen the road for them using analogies. A typical analogy in our course design would attempt to connect a concept to everyday ideas. We hope that students would find it easier to perceive new information if they can link up the concept to an already-understood idea. This not only gets the message across quickly, such as the functions of a certain molecule, but also keeps the classes entertaining. One example for this, with reference to the above picture, is comparing a cookbook to DNA, a recipe to a gene, mRNA to the chef, and the (protein) product as cake. Additionally, in an effort to cater to students of different backgrounds and learning needs, it is worth mentioning that we tried to keep the in-class teaching materials as simple and direct as possible, so as to minimise potential distractors and draw students’ focus towards the instructors’ teaching.

Case Studies & Mini-Projects:
Other than biology-based analogies, we utilised ‘mini-projects’ or case studies - small projects after a main theme is covered. The aim of these ‘mini-projects’ was to allow students an opportunity to apply their newly acquired knowledge in bioinformatics or real-life scenarios. This also allows teachers (and students) to identify and counter any potential misconceptions from the learning process.

Example of a mini-project from the junior camp

Using the above example of a ‘mini-project’ from the junior camp, students simulate the function of a ribosome by designing & coding a programme that reads DNA/RNA nucleotides sequences, and matches the corresponding codons to respective amino acids to build a polypeptide chain.

While our team managed to complete and deliver our parts, we were met with insufficient enrollment. Regrettably, the camp did not take place this summer, but we hope it is still possible that with better public engagement and promotion, the courses could recommence in the coming summer.

Click here to know more about our collaboration with Koding Kingdom in terms of entrepreneurship and its proposed execution.

JSSE: Joint School Science Exhibition

Event Photos
Our booth at JSSE

Our team members sharing our project to secondary school students

We were invited by the 54th Joint School Science Exhibition Preparation Committee (JSSEPC) as university delegates for the Joint School Science Exhibition (JSSE). The theme for this year was 'Balance’. The event took place from Aug 2-8 at the Exhibition Gallery of Hong Kong City Hall, during which more than 20 local secondary school teams showcased and presented their science projects.

Throughout the week, the HKU iGEM team introduced our project and synthetic biology using various posters, props, and pamphlets we created. We were able to align our project to the theme by focusing on improving the quality of the living environment by reducing plastic pollution, which may otherwise impact the enjoyment of leisure.

Since synthetic biology is still considered a new and unknown field of biology among the Hong Kong public, we pushed to increase public awareness and understanding of synthetic biology during this event. For the school team exhibitors, our goal was to expand their horizons beyond their science learning at school, and to realise how cross-disciplinary innovations have the capability to create a bigger impact. Other than that, having a booth at JSSE was an opportunity for us to quickly grasp relevant skills in explaining complex scientific concepts to an audience equipped with very basic scientific knowledge, especially to young children, using our bacteria props and analogies.

Most importantly, we gained valuable opinions from an outsider’s and general perspective on our project, which allowed us to finetune our approach in presenting to the public. For example, the greater part of people we encountered had never heard of synthetic biology. From our interactions with them, we learnt about how to place an emphasis on and elaborate certain terms and concepts during future sharings, presentations and pitches; such as the introduction of microbes, the size and design of our bioreactor prototype, the speed of plastic degradation and the ethical concerns that may be associated with our project.

We were also able to promote the HKU iGEM Policy Case Competition for Hong Kong Secondary Schools to increase its participant registration, as well as our Instagram account where we share updates and fun facts about synthetic biology so that they can stay in the loop on our team progress.

We would like to thank the 54th JSSEPC for inviting us as university delegates for the JSSE this year. Thanks to this event, we were able to obtain useful and valuable insights that helped us to refine our project and its presentation for the general audience.

JSSE Poster Showcase