iGEM being an international synthetic biology competition involves participants from countries all over the world. However, statistics from the past has shown that not all sections of the society are equally involved or equally represented in iGEM. This is the situation with STEM in general. Recognizing the importance of including diverse sections of society in science, our team conducted several activities to facilitate inclusivity in science.
Onam is the harvest festival of the state of Kerala in India. Pookalam/floral carpet is an intricate and colorful arrangement of flowers laid on the floor. The tradition of decorating Pookalam is extremely popular in Kerala and is followed as a ritual in every household during the ten-day-long Onam celebrations. To bridge the gap between art and science, we conducted Sci-Onam, a floral carpet-making competition, where participants had to incorporate scientific designs/themes into conventional Pookalam designs.
Despite receiving only three entries, the participants were able to incorporate scientific designs, especially biological ones, along with invoking the spirit of Onam. The floral carpets were judged by Dr. Jishy Varghese, Assistant Professor, School of Biology, IISER Thiruvananthapuram. The following were the judgement criteria:
- Color combinations
- Incorporation of scientific themes
- Overall perfection
“ Sci-Onam was a totally cool event. It connected the most advanced field of biology with Onam, the cultural festival of peace and love. While preparing the floral carpet, I felt so refreshed because of the flowers and the science in the design. Thank you iGEM IISER Thiruvananthapuram for this opportunity and these kinds of creative events.” ~Josy Joseph, 21yo Biology Major 3rd year UG
Bio-explorer was a thoughtful initiative by our team. National Institute of Speech and Hearing (NISH) is an institute devoted to educating and rehabilitating individuals with speech-language and hearing impairments, located in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital city in the Indian state of Kerala.
Academics at NISH is unique because NISH has an integrated campus where students with hearing impairment and students with normal hearing share the same campus. They offer bachelor’s level courses exclusively for students with a hearing impairment, including degree courses in Fine Arts, Computer Science, and Commerce affiliated with the University of Kerala. Therefore, we planned to conduct a week-long synthetic biology workshop for their students. However, upon meeting with Ms. Raji Gopal, Senior Lecturer in English at NISH, we understood that not all students had a science background, so that a week-long synthetic biology workshop would be too heavy on them, thereby not serving our purpose. Keeping this in mind, our team, under the guidance of Aan Ruth (our team member with prior experience in creating educational content for hearing impaired students), created a study material which takes the students who are not having much science background towards their first steps of understanding synthetic biology using basic biological concepts. The presentation was accompanied by a document containing a detailed description of the contents of the presentation. An interpreter could use this document to teach the students.
The study material along with the supplementary document was handed over to their institute.
Economic Inclusivity in iGEM
During the initial stages of our project, we conducted online discussions with several past iGEM teams. We learned that, despite succeeding during their stint at iGEM, no subsequent teams took part in the competition. This was mainly because of the lack of funds and sponsors.
The human development index (HDI) of a country is a statistical measure of life expectancy, education, and per capita income. So, it represents the standard of living and the investments in human resources such that the nation can benefit from the output of those investments. By considering HDI as the parameter for analyzing a country's investments in education, especially scientific education and research, there can be four categories:
- Very high (1.00 - 0.800)
- High (0.799-0.700)
- Medium (0.699 - 0.550)
- Low (< 0.550)
Dr. Harilal Madhavan (Faculty, School of Humanities, IISER Thiruvananthapuram) verified that HDI would be the right criterion for the analysis as it depends on both income and education for its evaluation.
To compare the percentage of iGEM teams from countries under the four tiers of HDI to study the inclusivity of countries with different economic backgrounds. Upon collecting the list of iGEM teams from 2010-2020 from the official website, we analyzed them based on the classification as mentioned above.
Observations and analysis:
Fig. The average percentage of iGEM teams from countries under four tiers of HDI. The error bars represent standard errors (The vertical axis is limited to 70 instead of 100 to make value from low HDI visible).
Year-wise analysis from 2010-2020 can be found here.
The graphs explicitly show that the average number of teams from countries with very high and high HDI accounts for about 95% of the total iGEM teams during 2010-2020. Only ~5% of teams are from countries with medium HDI Only ~0.3% of iGEM teams are from countries with low HDI.
We expected lower representation from countries with HDI<0.699, but not to this extent. Moreover, there were no teams from low HDI countries for about nine years in the analyzed period. After 2010, there was a steady and steep increase in the involvement of countries with high HDI. This can be attributed to China‘s new position in the tier of countries with high HDI.
It is also to be noted that many teams from countries with low HDI withdrew from the competition, which reduces their entire presence as a competitor.
- Less awareness among the people
Despite belonging to one of the premier research institutes of India (a country with a medium HDI), we (IISER Thiruvananthapuram) took part in the competition only after around 15 years from the initiation of iGEM.
We noticed that not most faculty and students of our institute were not aware of iGEM. This indicates the lack of awareness among people about iGEM, a prestigious synthetic biology competition.
- Lack of monetary support
Countries with low HDI witnessed neglect towards education, especially at the secondary and tertiary levels. Such countries do not have many funds allocated for higher education. Moreover, there are lesser opportunities for scholarships and stipends. This led to people becoming more reluctant to pursue higher education, primarily scientific research. Lesser monetary support is evident from the low per capita income of the nations.
As mentioned earlier, many Indian institutes do not participate in iGEM simply because of a lack of funds.
Remedial Measures to Improve Participation:
- Spread awareness. Educate the Public. Current participant teams can conduct awareness programs for high school and collegiate students about iGEM and its importance in propagating synthetic biology globally. The gold medal criterion of ‘Public Education and Communication’ is highly appreciable in this regard. Our team has also put in enormous efforts for the same, ranging from local to international events.
- Provide Monetary Support. We are very glad to see iGEM offering sponsorship opportunities for teams which is a lifeline for various economically backward teams from different parts of the world. It is definitely an appreciable effort from the iGEM to inspire teams to pursue their project ideas in the field of synthetic biology. It would be really helpful if teams from countries with low and medium HDI are getting special sponsorship opportunities. Moreover, financially well-to-do teams can also support them.
- Community Support. An intra-iGEM community by members from erstwhile iGEM teams of each nation can provide infrastructural and monetary support to upcoming teams.
In today’s world, social media is a powerful tool to connect and communicate with the masses. Hashtag challenges are a trending activity that can be used to reach out to people in a short amount of time. Taking advantage of this fact, the Public Relations (PR) sector of our team also initiated a hashtag challenge on Instagram titled #synbioonfood, where people would incorporate synthetic biology designs in their food and post them as their stories.
We received a moderate response from the public for the same; however, they were successful in incorporating synthetic biology designs into their food.
Cake 4- Official mascot of iGEM IISER Thiruvananthapuram (E. coli ) Cake 1- Agarose gel electrophoresis Cake 2- Fungi (Rhizopus oryzae) Cake 3- DNA