Education & Public engagement

Picking a target audience

We live in an age of massive scientific breakthroughs, in less than a century biology has probably taken the greatest leap of progress ever since its very conception. The development of whole new fields, such as molecular biology was possible due to the interest that physicists and chemists started to get in the study of life. Biology of the 20th and 21st century is therefore inherently multidisciplinary. Synthetic biology is a more recent example of this very concept: it’s the application of engineering principles to a set of scientific knowledge. This type of ingenuity is what allows us to design the building blocks from which we can design living machines.

However, the very thing that makes any modern science so interesting, its complexity, has also become a double-edged sword of sorts. No longer can one be an encyclopedist. In our day and age, many scientists are not well aware of the research going outside of their own narrow field. This applies to all sciences, but biology, as essentially the most rapidly developing scientific discipline, is especially susceptible to confusion. Any research paper is incredibly difficult to understand for a non-specialist.

Unfortunately, in many countries, conspiracy theories prevail over actual scientific knowledge. In Russia in particular, though biology is a compulsory subject in secondary schools,the school curriculum tends to focus on traditional branches of the field, such as ecology, zoology and botany. While the importance of these foundational disciplines cannot be denied, they don’t form a correct understanding of what modern biology is and what methods of research it involves. How can one not fear GMOs, when DNA is some important, yet abstract concept and when one doesn't even understand the basics of DNA replication or protein synthesis? Insulin is widely available and accepted as something life-saving, but how many students are actually aware of how it is produced? The double standard can only be explained by a lack of knowledge.

The misinformation and pseudoscience that the public believes in is only part of the problem. Novosibirsk State University, which most of our team members go to, has a goal of creating future specialists to work in SB RAS institutes. Therefore, as a research university, it has the right to modify its curriculum as it sees fit. The modules are tailored to what knowledge is currently required in cutting-edge science. This isn't the case for most Russian universities, which have a fixed curriculum that focuses on traditional biology. Alumni from these universities end up being at a disadvantage in the work industry and have fewer opportunities to gain knowledge both in Russia and abroad.

The problem of spreading information regarding modern biology is very multifaceted. Hence we decided to use a holistic approach and produce educational materials that target different audiences: from primary schoolchildren to our colleagues studying biology or related fields in regional universities.

The August School of Synthetic Biology (ASBS)

By far the biggest contribution our team has made in terms of education is the organisation

[2] Kontsevaya A, Boytsov S et al. “Overweight and Obesity in the Russian Population: Prevalence of the August School of Synthetic Biology in the scientific town of Akademgorodok, Novosibirsk. This summer school ran from the 21st to the 28th of August and primarily targeted students from regional universities studying not only biology but also related fields such as biotechnology or biomedicine.However, some of our students were people who only just graduated high school this summer.

Another key goal of the school was to provide training for educators from all across the country so that they can bring synthetic biology to their own classrooms. In the wake of an unfortunate lack of resources on this topic in the Russian language, such an exchange of knowledge and educational materials between specialists is pivotal to raise a new generation of synthetic biologists. This would also help to make our work available to a wider audience, and not just the attendees of our summer school in particular.

Synthetic biology is actually well developed in the capital of Moscow, which is reflected in the proportion of Russian iGEM teams from there - we’re currently the only Russian team not from there. In fact, we’re the only team from the whole of Siberia, a region the size of two Australias and with a population almost the size of that of Canada! We sought to play our part in correcting this situation and sharing our knowledge, as we have many talented compatriots from all across the country.

Our summer school acted as a general introduction to synthetic biology and its methods and doubled as preparation for iGEM and the Genome Editing section of the local STO and technology) Olympiad for high school and university students. In this way, we aimed to not only spread the awareness of opportunities provided by taking part in international competitions (i.e., iGEM) but also support local educational events.

Members of Team Siberia were heavily involved in every single aspect of organising the school:

  • Comprehensive wet and Dry lab modules were carefully designed by us so as to best provide our colleagues with the necessary practical skills to run their own iGEM project. The Wet lab modules were also taught by our team members throughout the duration of the school.
  • Leading scientists such as Dmitry Vladimirovich Pyshny (a professor of the Russian Academy of Sciences, corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, director of the ICBFM SB RAS) were invited to read lectures about the research currently happening in the field of synthetic biology and related disciplines to provide our students with the most up-to-date information on the topic.
  • Several platforms were provided for biotechnological companies such as BIOCAD to explain the type of research they carry out and discuss potential career opportunities for students in their companies.
  • Accommodation and meals were organised for attendees, as well as entertainment and tours to local attractions and areas of interest (such as the facilities of the Altair Centre for gifted children and Akademgorodok’s Technopark - an innovative space that strengthens connections between researchers and businesses and provides support for local start-ups and hi-tech companies).
  • Anna has done a remarkable job designing fun and recognisable branding for our summer school, which immediately put us on the map. It uses elements uniquely associated with our town and incorporates a biological aspect, of course. Though the ASBS only launched this year, we definitely plan to make it an annual event, so it was important to have a simple and immediately identifiable logo and design aesthetic. Merchandise of the ASBS with Anna’s designs was gifted to participants at the end of the summer school.
  • A more detailed overview of the August School of Synthetic Biology can be found on our Education page:

    Our verdict

    Overall our school provided an excellent opportunity for students to not only find out more about synthetic biology from top scientists in the field, but also gain wet and dry lab skills and learn about career opportunities from leading biological companies.

    As we ourselves led the wet lab modules and were responsible for entertainment, students had the opportunity to ask questions they might have been too embarrassed to ask the professors, thus encouraging open dialogue and interesting discussions between peers.

    Through the use of a combination of written resources, that can be used by our students even after the summer school, and the oral passage of knowledge, that would be put to use by the educators in their own home regions, we feel that we have achieved our goal of passing on the knowledge of synthetic biology and engineering to the next generation of scientists.

    To even further spread the benefits of our school, we have translated our wet lab protocols into English and they are freely available (the link may be found on our contributions page).

    School-level educational events

    Lecture at SESC NSU

    On the 14th of August, we held a meeting with 8-11 grade pupils from SESC NSU, a top-tier secondary school specialising in physics and maths. It turned out that while many students were well aware of what genetic engineering is, most had never heard of synthetic biology before. After a quick refresher of the basics, our teammates explained the principles and methods used in synthetic biology and examples of its applications (such as the “Enviropig” which digests phytates, thus keeping water reservoirs clean, and “Glofish”).

    We also gave a brief introduction to chemogenetics and finished our presentation talking about iGEM and our project LEAP2BRAIN. The pupils got to know our iGEM team and learnt about the intricacies of participating in this competition. As with the ASBS protocols, we have translated our presentation into English and the link is available on our contributions page.

    SIRIUS and ALTAIR schools for the gifted and talented

    The Sochi Centre SIRIUS and its Siberian counterpart - the ALTAIR Centre are educational centres for gifted and talented children and youth, that run summer camps and various courses throughout the year, dedicated to providing opportunities for children from any background to be educated on a level that simply cannot be provided by state schools with a universal curriculum and average school teachers. Talented children are often limited by standard education, as it fails to match their needs, thus halting their progress and creating a disinterest in a subject they were once passionate about. Children like this also tend to be bullied for not fitting in. These unique educational centres aim to reignite their interest, by placing them in an environment with like-minded peers and giving them the support in the form they need from adults.

    In the case of natural sciences, attendees have access to university-level labs and support from leading researchers and educators from all across the country to gain knowledge and skills (above even an Olympiad level!) needed from scientists in the present day. Over the summer, Anastasia assisted with lectures and lab projects on the topics of genetics and molecular biology in both centres, bringing her own experience as a young researcher working in an SB RAS institute into the classroom.

    The “Microbe Hunters” project

    “Microbe Hunters” is a citizen science project for primary school children launched in 2019 by Siberian scientists from the SB RAS Institute of Chemical Biology and Fundamental Medicine. Citizen science is the involvement of the public in scientific research with guidance from top scientists. While widespread in some European countries, such as Sweden, it’s only just starting to gain traction in Russia.

    Even though this project isn’t directly related to synthetic biology, we felt that it was our duty to assist with the implementation of such a great initiative. This project is a rare opportunity for children to not only find out something new and become interested in biology but also contribute to scientific progress themselves! One of the goals of the project is to obtain strains of new microorganisms for research.

    Due to the unique nature of the project, there are a limited number of resources suitable for primary school-aged children, more so in the Russian language. This is why our team member, Marina, decided to contribute to the creation of such materials by writing an age-appropriate manual about the isolation of phosphate-solubilising bacteria from soil. The manual contains an overview of the diversity of microorganisms, their role in the environment and their structure; it also explains what soil profiles are, and includes a practical guide to lab techniques used for their analysis.

    The resource was written in easy to understand language so as to make it accessible to children, but it also contains sufficient material to act as a handbook for their mentors, who oversee the project.

    SSB 2021

    The 13th International School for Young Scientists on Systems Biology and Bioinformatics (SSB 2021), was held by the SB RAS Institute of Cytology and Genetics from the 4th to the 9th of October. One of our bioinformaticians, Alexander, taught a practical lesson about transcriptome reconstruction and analysis based on RNA-seq data.

    Collaborative educational initiatives


    The BioDoodle Challenge was a great collaborative outreach project from iBowu China. The “BioDoodle” is a colouring book that acts as an introduction of biological concepts to schoolchildren (which is also technically great fun for any age). Our team member Anna did a wonderful drawing of a neural synapse in combination with an easy-to-understand explanation of how it works. As most of our educational projects were aimed at high school students, university students and educators, this was a nice change of pace and we felt it was great to use a more intuitive visual format for a younger audience.

    Engineering Biology Problem Book

    Although there are some problems when it comes to synthetic biology-related education in Russia, there are specialists who greatly contribute to developing the field and bringing cutting-edge science into the classroom. As synthetic biology is a very rapidly developing field, we felt that students from all across the world should have access to materials relevant to the current age of science.

    As part of a multi-team collaboration between Russian teams, Danil and Daria assisted with the translation of the Engineering Biology Problem Book by Dr. Kablukov of MSU from Russian into English.

    Instagram and VKontakte

    Also, we’d like to point out our Short passage about how design impacted education.