Education and Communication


Education and communication is an essential part of science, most importantly it allows for various different stakeholder groups and the general public to be a part of scientific development. As such, our team put a lot of effort into 4 main projects to educate and communicate concepts related to synthetic biology. Firstly, we decided to continue the tradition of publishing our own unofficial peer-reviewed iGEM proceedings journal: MSP-Vector 2nd edition as scientific literature is a core aspect of research. Secondly, we wanted to target a young audience to develop outreach materials and workshops in order to inspire them about the field of synthetic biology. To accomplish this we conducted two school workshops, one for children in Switzerland and one for special needs children in the Hague. To complement the workshops we also created our very own card game called CellBuilder. This game is aimed at teaching children the basic organelles of different types of cells and introduces them to the concept of genetic engineering.


Coverage of the methane pollution issue in the Netherlands, the current state of ways to solve the problem, and the role of GMOs in it - we invite viewers to find new insight on this topics in the documentary "Where to and where from - Greenhouse Gases and Blame - The Dutch Farming Industry". The documentary speaks about the problem in an accessible and engaging way and encourages the viewer to form their own opinion and ideas.

go to documentary

Literature suggests that scientific writing needs significant improvement at the moment (Jerde et al., 2004). Academic writing has been a problematic weakness for many students who want to develop their careers; no matter how good you are at collecting data, analysis or understanding complex topics, if you cannot write scientific articles, you will not be published and therefore limit your scientific career immensely. Data suggests that the most effecting way to improve writing is by integrating it into research (Jerde et al., 2004). For this reason our previous team, MSP-Maastricht 2020, decided to set up the journal initiative. They gathered research papers from as many iGEM teams as possible in order to simulate/imitate a real open access journal including aspects such as peer review. All of this was done in efforts to offer aspiring scientists, within the iGEM competition, a chance to familiarize themselves with the writing and publishing process. We maintain such intentions and have taken action to improve last year's efforts. As our 2020 team noticed that several teams had difficulty writing articles suitable for scientific journals, it was decided to not only organize/produce the journal, which in and of itself was time consuming and challenging, but also expand the scope of this year's journal initiative. This was achieved by offering academic writing workshops, as well as altering how we organized the peer review and setting up our own website external from the wiki.

Of course, it must not be underestimated that we took plenty of time to organize the journal itself. With the help of our peer who created an email sending program, we sent over 400 emails. We had to be consistently on top of the email to answer questions be it technical or organisational. Our initial form of contacting was by sending a message to all teams through Slack, approximately 150 through Instagram, and 35 through email. We created a template of how the paper should be formatted in order to make the journal more authentic.

On top of that, we created a website for the team to have a single location in which information regarding our project could be accessible to other iGEM teams, potential sponsors, and other people interested in our work, a team website was created. The website was created using WordPress, which is an open-source content management system designed to rapidly create appealing websites. In WordPress, a number of plugins and templates were used to create the backbone of the website. Next, pages, content, and functionality such as the aforementioned OJS integration were added manually to suit the website to the specific needs of the team. The website has a team home page, a team members page, and a journal home page. The journal home page provides information to our journal initiative. The website offers forum functionality, which is used for the journal's peer review process.

Additionally, a total of five workshops were made. We realized that not every iGEM team has the privilege to receive academic writing training, even though we perceive academic writing as a major part of science and academia. Thus, a very big focus this year was to invest in education on scientific writing, and other skills such as referencing, and language use. Each workshop covered an important aspect of the writing and publishing process. At the same time, we contacted Joop Hoekstra, an expert in academic writing who worked in Maastricht University's Language Center. He gave us feedback on every workshop in order to make them engaging, accurate and useful. Additionally, for the peer review workshop, we contacted Roy Erkens, a biology professor from Maastricht University who is actively involved in science communication and publishing work He gave some insight on the peer review process from a scientist's point of view talking about his experience, its importance and the changes that he has seen throughout his career.

Last but not least, we changed the way we did the peer review. It was chosen to work with the Open Journaling System (OJS) compared to last year where our team organized it manually with the aim of making the process more authentic. Moreover, it also allows us to understand a new system that could be useful if the journal grows even more and micromanaging is no longer as feasible. This was challenging for all of us since we did not have guidance and led to a few complications. It turned out to be more time consuming than we expected, was still error prone since most of the organising was done manually, just with an extra step. This allowed us to learn and give advice to future teams on what to watch out for as was done with us. An important point to mention is that we created documents with detailed instructions for the peer review process. We did a peer review system of where the author knows who the reviewer is and vice versa in order to increase transparency

The result of all this is the final version found below. We hope this product reflects the hard work of our team and all of the participants. Enjoy!


Collaborations medal states that the silver medal will be awarded to those who "collaborate with one or more IGEM 2021 teams in a meaningful way". Not only did we create an environment in which multiple teams can collaborate but we were involved in that process ourselves. Each team wrote an article from scratch,peer reviewed 3 scientific articles from others and got peer reviewed by 2 other teams. Here is some of the information showing both the detailed instructions we created and followed:(insert peer review document). On top of that, we diligently worked upon communicating in a clear and timely manner with the participants upon instructions. In short, the journal speaks for itself; it would not have been possible to achieve the final product without a great deal of collaboration.

The education and communication medal will be awarded to those who "develop and implement education, science communication, and/or outreach materials related to synthetic biology." With regard to this medal, we find that this initiative is filled with educational opportunities. First participants applied by sending an abstract of 200 words that would essentially state their topic. This required that they conduct research on the matter and find that it had sufficient potential to write a scientific article on it. This requires a combination of communication and critical thinking skills. After this, they began writing the article itself which challenged them in terms of communication and understanding of synthetic biology. Throughout this process they were supported by our team in the form of workshop videos that introduced them to the ideas behind good scientific writing. After all the teams submitted their first draft, the peer review stage began. Here each team was assigned 2 articles where they would challenge their peers on their articles providing detailed feedback. This requires a lot of critical thinking and good communication skills. At the same time the participants learn about cutting edge research regarding this field with increasingly high potential. Then there is also a component of being able to apply feedback which is useful in any kind of work. If we go beyond the participants this process was also filled with important lessons for those who led this initiative; we developed important organizational skills, audiovisual & written communication skills, and how to deal with last minute urgent matters.

As part of the science communication aspect, our team wanted to find a simple, engaging and fun way to spread knowledge about synthetic biology to younger students. From this, the idea about a cell biology card game arose.

The game is designed for players to learn to appreciate fundamental cell biology and develop a passionate understanding for what synthetic biology is and how it can be applied to modern day usage. Our goal is to provide this card game with open access on an online platform, thus, ensuring inclusivity. Thereby, a pdf version of the card game , including a game manual, can be downloaded, printed, and cut into the right pieces. This easy concept allows schools, private parties, etc. to distribute knowledge through the card game in an affordable manner.

The goal of the game is to build a cell with all its correct cell components. For that, we picked three different type of cells; mammalian cells, plant cells and prokaryotic cells. By providing explanations on the nature of each specific cell organelle on the card itself, the players learn about the cell while playing the game. To relate the game to synthetic biology, "gene cards" were introduced into the game that allow a player to weaken the position of the other players.

In order to test out this game and implement feedback, it was distributed among different age groups ranging from early middle school to high school students. This showed that the game was suitable for the age groups from 11+. Overall, we have received positive feedback about the game, especially from younger groups who are currently learning about cell organelles at school. In the future, we want to distribute this game to local high schools and middle schools in the Netherlands.

Both of these documents can be download so you can play too!

As part of our external relations and science communication contribution, we reached out to a high school in Switzerland to spread knowledge on and arouse curiosity about synthetic biology.

In August, our team designed a lesson plan for a scientific debate for this high school in Switzerland. This lesson plan can be found here. The goal of these lessons was to start a debate about the usage of GMOs, specifically related to our project. To build this up, our team held a presentation for the class explaining synthetic biology (using an example), explaining our project and stipulating debate topics. The presentation can be found here.

The students would gain important experience in multiple ways. On the one hand, it was a good exercise in spoken English. On the other hand, these lessons forced them to confront themselves with their opinion on GMOs, and furthered their critical thinking. Furthermore, as the teacher, Ms. Davalan, explained, it showed them the use of English for their potential future studies, as many university courses (also within Switzerland) are already taught in English. Therefore they got an insight into what the English language will be of use for in their future. Lastly, this exchange also allowed them to ask questions to young students and scientists, so that they can get an idea of what studying abroad is like (as the team members conducting these lessons are also foreign students in the Netherlands).

On our side, we profited from this lesson by getting the opinion of the younger generation on climate change, climate action, and to what lengths they see climate action as ethical. We wanted to get an insight into the opinion of students about our project and whether they would accept such an endeavour.

The students are between the ages of 15-17, and are learning English for four lessons per week. They seemed very engaged from the beginning and participated actively as well as asking many questions. After our presentation, the students had to prepare a debate in teams over the weekend. Opinions were randomly assigned, either being in favour or against the use of GMOs and our project. Two debates of two teams each were held, with each team consisting of about four to five students. This was done with two different classes, totalling in four debates. At the end, each class had one winning team, which earned themselves some Swiss chocolate.

The first of the two classes after completion of the debate. The students agreed to have a picture taken and it being uploaded to our wiki.

The second class after completing their debate. The students have agreed to have a picture taken and it being uploaded on our wiki.

The teacher of this English class, Lilly Davalan (the sister of team member Tim Davalan), was essential in designing these lessons, and gave valuable advice for the lesson plan and the presentation. She helped in making certain concepts more clear, and explained the importance of using adequate scientific language for students that are still learning English. She also initiated a Q&A session, in which her students got the opportunity to ask university students and young scientists about their life studying and conducting science.

During the debate, we kept notes which we thought were worth mentioning and talking about after the debate, but also to mention here (anonymously). As we do not want any statement attached to any class, we will not mention from which debate or which class each statement is.

We were mostly interested in the arguments against our project. During the debate, we did not explain concepts or address the concerns, and also after the debate, we did not want to convince the students of our project. We wanted to stay more or less neutral in front of them, and only offered our opinion when specifically asked during the Q&A session. Yet here, we will address some concerns the con teams had during the debate, with some further explanations about how our project tries to solve them.

Argument Comment
We shouldn’t try to change the cows, there are so many cows, we should try to change ourselves by eating less meat so that we don’t need so many cows, we think it is not the fault of the cows, we shouldn’t change nature. We agree that there is no more sustainable meat industry than an abandoned meat industry. Yet we do not see the entire world turning vegetarian within the next 20 years. It is for this reason that we have initiated this project, as time is running out, and humanity is bound to its free decision making about their food consumption.

A further argument against this is that the methane emissions from ruminants are mostly considered anthropogenic emissions. We are therefore curbing something that we ourselves have brought upon this world.
It is very unknown and it can change the world forever, as we don’t know the side effects. It is true that introducing our GMO comes with many uncertainties. Yet with our kill switches we try to prevent this from happening, and with long experimental testing phases, we can optimize our bacteria so that the escape rate falls beneath detection level. Further animal trials would take place in areas where potential escaped bacteria could not get into the environment.
Animal experiments have a negative side. It is not ok to use cows or rats as experimental animals, because we don’t know if the thing works, and then an animal dies unfairly. Animals have emotions and feelings, if an experiment fails then the animals were used for nothing. It is true that animals have feelings and emotions. Yet our project uses a bacteria that naturally occurs in the rumen (E.coli), therefore not introducing an unknown species. Furthermore, experiments in which bromoform producing seaweed has been fed to cows have not resulted in death.

Optimally we would have an inducible kill switch, such as feeding the cows certain supplements which would immediately kill our GMO inside of them. This could be used as soon as signs of distress are detected in the cows during experimental trials.
There is a reason everything is created as it is now, we shouldn’t change that, if we use GMO we reshape the world to have it our way and use innocent animals. Farmers only make 10 percent of emissions, we should work on ourselves and only eat meat only every two weeks reducing the amount of cows instead of changing them, it's an animal and not a machine. I work with cows every day, they have feelings, I could not look into the eyes of a cow and tell it to change. There being a reason why things are the way they are now is maybe more of a theological statement. Yet the world was different 200 years ago from how it is now, and scientific progress had a lot to do with that. It is therefore not unnatural to use the products of scientific research to alter the world (hopefully for the better), as humanity has done for a long time already.

We obviously agree that nothing would be more sustainable than a reduction in meat consumption or complete vegetarianism, but as argued above, we do not see this happening so soon.

It is not that there is a problem with the animal, but there is a problem with our dependence on it, and therefore its additive emissions are a problem indirectly caused by humans. We therefore see this project not as changing the cows, but changing ourselves.
There is the problem of uncontrollable mutation, the bacteria could mutate and take control of the environment, it could destroy biodiversity. There is indeed a problem with mutation, specifically mutations in the kill switches, or adaptations to withstand kill switches. There is ongoing research to optimize the working temporal length of a kill switch in a GMO. This is a big obstacle in the way for all GMOs that are mobile, such as bacterial GMOs.
This bacteria could be used as an excuse to increase industrial meat production, as it can be argued by big companies that their meat is ‘green’, and therefore they could increase their production. This is an obvious concern, yet we do not have control over this. Governmental regulations or voluntary meat consumption reduction would be the way in which this can be prevented.
It takes very long to test a GMO, so that time and the resources can be used in other ways to stop climate change. Whether we start testing this bacterial GMO or not, in 15 years time we will have a big problem with greenhouse gases. If there is no other, more obvious solution, then attempting to prove that this concept could work is better than nothing.

I tend to agree with the counterargument: whether or not we do this project, the greenhouse gas emissions continue. If we have the means to fight only in 15 years, that is better than nothing. Furthermore, it would take more time than that to have the entire world population reduce their meat consumption or turn vegetarian.
CO2 is a bigger issue that should be tackled first, before methane. It is indeed true that there is more CO2 in the atmosphere, yet methane has a very high potency compared to CO2. It is therefore a viable gas whose emissions should be tackled. Yet we agree that more measures should be taken to reduce the emissions of other greenhouse gases from various sources.
Nature should be left as it is. This may be more of a philosophical argument. Humans are products of nature and evolution as any other living organism is. Our evolutionary path has led us to have increased brain sizes, and high intelligence. These are natural adaptations, and therefore it can be argued that scientific advancements discovered by humans are equally natural. From there it is not a large step to the statement that changing the DNA of other organisms is not unnatural, as it is done by an animal or nature, using its natural skills, on another organism of nature. By this definition, the term ‘unnatural’ actually does not exist.

Although more arguments were brought up, we decided to address only a few of the most important ones.

We got great feedback on this project, and it was a great learning experience for both the students as well as for our team members. We would like to thank Lilly Davalan and both classes for their engagement and their arguments.