This year our team focussed on developing new opportunities for individuals in synthetic biology. We were motivated to create an inclusive environment that fostered innovation, connections and understanding. We developed educational resources to encourage open dialogue relative to spinal cord injury awareness and synthetic biology. Our ultimate aim was to promote mutual learning and open discussion amongst our audience. Throughout this page we will discuss the launch of our Pilot Competition Biologix, collaborations with other iGEM teams to develop educational resources and developing guides to educate our audience on spinal cord injuries.
In order to improve the accessibility of synthetic biology and its multifarious applications we hosted a competition, Biologix, which was targeted at youths about to enter tertiary education. Specifically, this competition aimed to educate high-school students on the practical applications of synthetic biology in a diversity of fields, and understand the moral principles behind the topics. This was achieved through establishing a two-way dialogue with participants by hosting lectures and live Q&A’s. Due to COVID-19 regulations, we could not conduct this competition in-person and thus elected to complete it remotely as a pilot investigation to evaluate its success and identify any limitations.
We identified an absence in the exposure of synthetic biology in high schools, and aimed to educate students about the beauty of synthetic biology by implementing a theme that is commonly discussed in high schools, ‘The Environment’. The values that were instilled into the competition consisted of widening participation in STEM by opening the competition to all interested students regardless of their prior interest in the field. We made sure that there was an open-dialogue between high school students and the field of synthetic biology, while also making sure that they had exposure to opportunities in tertiary education.
In order to create an efficacious and operative competition, we had to undergo training to make sure we were qualified in organising and hosting Zoom calls with students under the age of 18. The team equipped themselves by completing Disclosure and Barring Service checks and undergoing Safeguarding Training. Following the data protection advice provided, we made sure that we obtained consent from parents, and that the students had their cameras off and remained muted throughout the zoom calls, using the chat box function to communicate and ask questions. We also made sure to follow GDPR guidelines that suggested that the participants are only referred to by their first name, and all the data they gave us through consent forms would be deleted in December after the competition.
The development of the competition began in Phase I of our project, where we conducted a preliminary analysis of the design and timeline of the competition; unfortunately, we were unable to conduct the competition at this time due to COVID-19 restrictions. The design of the competition was predominantly structured to increase independent learning, which is a skill that is mainly used during tertiary education, thus resulting in our choice to target high-school students. Students in the age range of 16-18 are seeking to apply to university or future careers and our hope was that the competition would help shape their views on whether the field of synthetic biology is something that they would further pursue. Utilising the preliminary foundations devised during Phase I of the project, we consulted many faculty members at King’s College London in order to shape our competition in Phase II.
Prior to the launch of our competition, we contacted the widening participation team at King’s College London to further understand the requirements involved in organising our initiative. We initially spoke with Dr Steve Thompson who highlighted the importance of incorporating the following values into our competition: confidence, communication and presentation. We did this by making sure the content was appropriately tailored to our audience by using language that would be easily understood. As well as this, we made sure to include interactive elements including quizzes and videos in order to engage the students.
The competition was advertised through many different avenues in order to reach students from the UK and across the world, we advertised through platforms most likely to reach our target audience such as Instagram and LinkedIn. Katharine Morgan also published our work in the university newsletter which is distributed across partner schools. Upon Dr Thompson’s suggestion, we also included surveys both pre- and post- competition to better quantify its effects on the participating students alongside ways in which future renditions can be improved.
Additionally, we also talked with Sarah Tattam and Anisha Boghaita, who are heavily involved in the student experience within the Faculty of Life Sciences and Medicine. Firstly, they provided us with the communication links to schools in South-East London, helping us contact the necessary staff members. They also provided insight regarding the legal considerations of our competition, such as the necessity of a DBS Check and General Data Protection Regulations (GDPRs). Additionally, they also indicated that we need to take careful consideration of potential conflicts of interest when providing prizes as part of the incentivisation to join Biologix. Another pertinent point was their emphasis on having a housekeeping segment at the beginning of each lecture, alongside creating a digital safety handbook for their perusal. They did, nevertheless, emphasise the need for prizes and well-delineated skills that can be acquired from participating (particularly referring to the KASE - Knowledge, Attributes, Skills, and Experience - framework from the King’s Careers and Employability Department).
Regarding the source of our prizes, we got in touch and arranged meetings with a variety of sponsors who were very enthused to provide a wide range of scientific materials, such as booklets, textbooks, and soft toys. These prizes were predominantly provided by contributions from Promega and New England Biolabs.
With the view of ensuring longevity of the competition and ensuring that we built up a foundation for which we can document how Biologix affected the students in the long-term, we organised the competition under KCLSU through the KCL Biotechnology and Synthetic Biology Society as iGEM teams are not widely available at high schools, we thought it would be wiser to run the competition under the society KCL iGEM 2020 founded, in this way we can continue the competition through the society.
Before initiating the start of the competition, we had to ensure that our project was shaped by our stakeholders (high-schools). In order for this to happen, we sent out an anonymous survey to high school teachers, as facilitated by the communication links provided by Sarah Tattam and Anisha Boghaita, as well as by the KCL iGEM 2021 team’s own academic backgrounds. The aim of this survey was to identify the most feasible logistics (e.g. timeline, deliverables, rewards) facilitating optimum participation and impact on the global community.
Overall, we received 35 responses: 30 from the UK constituting 85.7% and 5 from across Spain and Qatar making up the rest. All schools taught the A-level curriculum - with the exception of one who covered IB - and had considerably strong STEM focuses with 27 giving a 4 or 5 out of a 5-point scale rating. This confers nicely with Biologix as the competition is coming out of a UK-based institution but will impart skills universal to any student contemplating the study of life sciences. As alluded to above, we decided to focus this programme specifically on 16 - 18-year-olds as these are the individuals who will be weighing up different university courses. 45.7% (16) of the 35 respondents hold 16 - 18 student populations consisting of 200+ individuals corroborating our decision to hone in on this age range since there would be a considerable pool of potential participants. Additionally, the use of English as our primary language of instruction and virtual platforms were indicated to not be a deterrent factor for participation.
Graph 1: Graph from initial survey sent to schools
Graph 2: Graph from initial survey sent to schools
Graph 3: Graph from initial survey sent to schools
The most important incentivisation factors include enabling students to participate as individuals without much need for teacher input which simulates the environment that can be found in universities where independent work is championed. Additionally, most suggested that we hold the competition during term-time but after school hours (or flexibly) as dedicating time to this programme over the summer holiday would require extra dedication and motivation. The general consensus was that this would be valuable and interesting for their respective 16 - 18 student populations and that the deliverables - for which we initially selected group presentations - were appropriate.
Using the feedback above, we decided upon an online competition spanning 2 weeks and consisting of 3 lectures held in collaboration with other iGEM teams alongside a more general personal statement workshop. We decided to conduct the competition in collaboration with the University of Manchester and the University of St. Andrews. Due to them taking part in iGEM, they were most well versed in the field of synthetic biology, and by explaining their iGEM projects in basic language, it provided the students with real-life examples of the uses of synthetic biology. They could also give students prospects of what is available to them in terms of tertiary education, using their personal experiences as guidance. These lectures would be recorded and uploaded onto YouTube so that all participants can access information irrespective of timezone and individual schedules. The lectures would essentially imbue participants with foundational knowledge of synthetic biology alongside providing guidance surrounding how to efficiently read scientific literature, how to set up a poster, how to identify a topic of interest and many more. There was an optional drop-in session where participants could ask questions relating to the competition or wider topics such as university life.
In order to help them when applying to tertiary education, Katharine Morgan also agreed to advise the students on how a personal statement should be written, mainly focusing on students applying to STEM subjects. She has had prior experience in helping students, specifically students applying to medicine or dentistry, with their personal statements and so this tailored personal statement workshop was effective in providing support for the students.
As additional support we organised a drop-in session, over Zoom, for the participants to check in with our team members and ask any further questions they had related to the lecture content, applying to university and synthetic biology. During this session participants clarified the structure of their posters with us and we were able to engage with our audience. Participants were asked to remain on mute and encouraged to keep their cameras off, they instead communicated with our team through the chatbox to ensure discussion was moderated and we ensured their safety.
In the first week we presented lectures under the following topics:
King’s College London:
University of St. Andrews:
University of Manchester:
After the first week of lectures, we gave them an independent project of designing a scientific poster related to ‘The Environment’. Using the information they learnt over the week, they had to implement a solution to a ‘global or local’ real-life problem that could involve fossil fuels, global warming, or loss of diversity, using synthetic biology. The structure of the poster recommended to them consisted of a title; introduction; background; entrepreneurship and marketing; and future directions. We did this so they would develop a multi-faceted approach to solving the problem. This was supplemented by our handbooks: one targeting general information concerning Biologix including an introduction to the competition, structure of the competition, project deliverables, and judging criteria. The other specifically gives inspiration for the poster deliverable.
A PDF handbook created for the participants of our competition.
Our judging criteria consisted of fulfilling the competition deliverables making sure that they fulfilled the content from the marking criteria associated with each section. For the introduction they had to describe how they aimed to resolve their specific problem through their project design, and what inspired them to develop this solution. The background consisted of describing the scientific basis behind the title. The entrepreneurship and marketing incorporated how they would market the solution to the general public and also how they would raise funding for their project. Finally, in future directions, they would mention where they see their project going in the next ten years. They also had to think about the audience that they are communicating to, which makes up science communication. Alongside this they had to think about the ethical, social and security considerations, in order to find out whether the project was good for the world. In our judging criteria, we incorporated many parts of the iGEM competition criteria.
We had special awards for the participants that showed excellence in these specific areas of the poster:
The rationale behind selecting posters over presentations was due to the recommendation from teachers to have a competition that doesn’t require coordination of teams as this may impede on morale especially during the summer break period.
As a centralised platform for all of the information about the competition, we designed the Biologix website. It contains the sign-up form as well as the consent form required to enter the competition. Under ‘Competition Details’, you can find information about the timeline of the competition. ‘Lecture Resources’ contains the recording of all of the lectures. To supplement their poster submission, the competition handbook and poster inspiration can be found under ‘Poster Submission and Resources’. In order for the participants to submit their poster, we added an upload section to the website, which also has a countdown to the poster submission. The tab containing ‘Awards’ contains all the special awards they can receive, and the ‘About Us’ page contains all the information about our team.
This is an example of one of the posters that was uploaded by one of the participants of this years competition:
Figure 2: Example Poster from the Biologix Competition
After the completion of the competition, it was featured in the weekly newsletter produced by the Ningbo British International School in China. This is the article from the newsletter:
Figure 3: Newsletter article from Ningbo British International School
Another form of motivation came in the form of prizes which were kindly sponsored by our institution, Promega and New England Biolabs who gave KCL-related merch and scientific booklets and articles, respectively. All who attended received some form of recognition through special awards and prizes. This aligned well with the prize suggestions listed out by teachers who responded to our survey. All of these digital materials were communicated via email to keep our participants up to date with the most recent information and prizes were posted to the winner enabling for an overall enriching experience.
Figure 1: Opening of the prizes
As this was the pilot competition, we hoped for 20 sign-ups but managed to exceed this by receiving 23 sign-ups from 13 different schools, and 4 different countries including Malaysia and the Philippines, which solidified the presence of the competition internationally. In order to adapt to the different time zones and maximise accessibility, our competition was made available on all electronic devices (phone, tablets, computers).
In order to assess the immediate impact of our initiative, we were recommended to give the participants surveys to evaluate their understanding of synthetic biology. This survey was a service evaluation of Biologix before and after the competition, with answers on a 5 point-scale, with 1 being ‘No, not at all’ and 5 being ‘Yes, a lot’.
We received 13 responses from the pre-competition survey and they mostly exhibited a lack of understanding of synthetic biology before the competition. 69.2% of the participants voted under a 3 for the question ‘Before taking part in Biologix, how well did you understand the concept of Synthetic Biology?’. After the competition, we sent out the survey again and received 9 responses. From this data, we obtained an increase of 55% in people voting above 4. This suggests an increase in the understanding of synthetic biology after the end of the Biologix Competition.
Graph 4. Graph from service evaluation surveys for Biologix
Graph 5: Graph from service evaluation surveys for Biologix
Graph 6: Graph from service evaluation surveys for Biologix
The competence of the skills we had taught throughout the lectures, including understanding the structure and analysing of scientific papers were also shown to be higher after the competition. 61% of the participants voted a 3 or below for the question ‘Before taking part in Biologix, how confident did you feel when reading scientific papers?’ before the start of the competition, however, this decreased 28% after the competition.
Graph 7: Graph from service evaluation surveys for Biologix
Graph 8: Graph from service evaluation surveys for Biologix
The data from the service evaluation of the Biologix Competition also shows an increase from 38.5% to 57% in the participants' interest in exploring synthetic biology during their tertiary education. The results demonstrate the success of the competition. By widening participation in STEM, we created an open dialogue for the participants to further explore the world of synthetic biology.
Graph 9: Graph from service evaluation surveys for Biologix
Graph 10: Graph from service evaluation surveys for Biologix
In terms of suggestions for future cycles for Biologix, we have identified that accessibility would have been greatly increased had we had the chance to hold the competition in person. This is in the context of engagement as well as provision of technology required for full participation within the programme. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, we were limited in our ability to book spaces on campus for these students to peruse during the delivered lectures. With regards to the timeline, we would also try to shift the start-date back to July in order to obtain a larger pool of participants as this would mean that Biologix does not eat into their time to enjoy the summer vacation. Additionally, teachers from multiple high schools indicated that they would have been happy to promote the competition - as seen from the graph below which was extracted from our initial teacher survey - had it been during the academic year.
As part of our initiative to make synthetic biology accessible to a wider community, we collaborated with USP-EEL to produce a synthetic biology textbook. The primary focus of this textbook was to provide a simplified, easy-to-understand guide to synthetic biology and aimed to encourage wider participation with the STEM industry amongst 16-18-year-olds , regardless of prior knowledge or educational background. The textbook provides a basic overview of the key components of synthetic biology ranging from molecular biology and genetics as well as highlighting the potential benefits and possible issues surrounding the bioethics and biosecurity of synthetic biology in the real world.
This collaboration provided us with the opportunity to provide an accessible resource for students who are interested in learning about the theory behind synthetic biology but may lack the appropriate scientific knowledge required to understand many of the current synthetic biology resources currently available. Presently, synthetic biology resources include detailed research papers and articles, targeting researchers and students in higher education. To tackle this, USP-EEL were able to select several topics of interest that were easy to explain and develop the first version of the textbook. The KCL iGEM team were then able to include further information on gene expression and the molecular mechanisms underlying the development of synthetic biology devices and address the current viewpoints of the use of synthetic biology in the real world, in a structurally coherent manner.
Together we aim to reach a wide range of students from all walks of life. This resource provides a short comprehensive overview of synthetic biology and encourages students to think of solutions to current unsolved global issues while also generating interest in an ever-evolving industry.
A PDF of our USP-EEL Textbook.
In the future, we hope to collaborate with Mother Nature. Mother Nature is an organization in the UK dedicated to science outreach through clubs, after-school events, and summer camps. We hope to make a 10-minute video introducing synthetic biology, using the mussel as an example of how synthetic biology takes inspiration from biological phenomena to develop novel solutions to global problems. We have also previously collaborated with Mother Nature on an activity for primary school students which can be seen below.
Our target audience is 5-11 year old children in the UK. As such, the content of the video will be kept quite simple so as to not overwhelm or confuse children. The video can roughly be divided into two halves. The first half introduces synthetic biology by first explaining what biology is through an introduction to what mussels are. The second half delves into the basics of DNA structure and how synthetic biologists can express DNA from one organism in another to create novel proteins and materials.
We have decided to do this for Mother Nature as this format allowed Mother Nature to readily use it whenever required. It can also be beneficial because a video can be fully accessible in scenarios where isolation may be required as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Using videos, we want to reach out to younger audiences and inspire them to explore and contribute to biotechnology and synthetic biology.
Figure 4: Activity in collaboration with Mother Nature
The St Andrews lecture was an online pre-recorded lecture done in collaboration with the University of St. Andrews iGEM team. We developed educational outreach for primary school students with a proposed implementation for outreach in primary schools for St Andrews.
The presentation used mussel foot proteins as an example of how synthetic biology can take inspiration from nature to design new materials with unique properties such as underwater adhesion.
Additionally, the lecture delves into the basics of DNA structure, explaining how DNA is universal to all living organisms. Alongside the development of Biologix, the St. Andrews lecture is an example of how we engaged with younger students to educate and inspire them to study synthetic biology in the future.
We have developed a Rehabilitation Guide for Spinal Cord Injury, which aims to raise awareness on the multidisciplinary process involved in rehabilitation protocols. Through our guide, we hope to emphasise the importance of a holistic approach towards recovery. We have identified the need for psychological support, physiotherapy, proper integration of medical devices and support from nurses, clinicians and the patient’s family.
A common misunderstanding relative to rehabilitation, involves the belief that restoring motor function is of top priority. However, although functional recovery can be achieved and is incentivised, rehabilitation processes typically focus on preparing the patient to live with their new found abilities and in finding their place in society. We hoped that through this guide, we could inform the following groups: SCI patients, support networks and individuals interested in rehabilitation therapies.
We reached out to the Spinal Injuries Association (SIA) in the UK in order to have a professional perspective on the guide created, to ensure it was educational and that it portrayed the rehabilitation protocols effectively. With the advice from SIA research and nurse staff we further tailored our guide to be a more accurate representation of this process and the parties involved.
A PDF of our Rehabilitation Guide.
We developed a guide elucidating the mechanisms behind axonal inhibition, particularly focussing on the role of chondroitinase sulphate proteoglycans (CSPGs). We aimed to develop an open dialogue with our audience by educating them on the biochemical cascades involved in spinal cord injuries. Additionally, we wanted to ensure our audience could understand the primary reason why we developed our therapy and how each element of our design is tailored to combat the inhibitory growth mechanisms of CSPGs. We have tailored this guide for individuals in STEM, with an aim to open dialogue between researchers working on functionally restorative SCI treatment options. Within this guide you will find a description of the biochemistry of a SCI lesion, the sulfation patterns of CSPGs and their role in trapping growth factors.
A PDF of our CSPG Guide.