Education & Public Engagement
This year, we wanted to take advantage of the diverse academic backgrounds in our team to familiarise fields such as synthetic biology and make them more accessible to the public. We mainly focused our effort on introducing synthetic biology to the next generation of scientists in what we saw as underrepresented groups in the scientific community. While we were at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic and there was wide speculation about vaccinations as they were coming out, we also found importance in trying to destigmatize them and simplify the science for the general public. On this page, we’ll discuss the highlights of our educational and public engagement efforts.
Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village Virtual Synbio Club
Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV)is a youth village for vulnerable orphans in Rwanda. Students are high schoolers and their studies are focused on different disciplines. One of our team members had a connection to the village, having previously visited, and knew the great potential of the students there. We felt that our unique position of being a group of multidisciplinary university students, as well as iGEMers, could have a lot of potential for introducing students to the field of synthetic biology and iGEM. We also realized that iGEM is severely underrepresented in the African continent, and we hoped to introduce young students there, who wouldn’t have heard of iGEM otherwise, to the organization and competition. Our hopes were to expand the perspective of real-world biology and engineering for the students, as well as inspire them to possibly initiate iGEM teams in the future as they continue to higher education.
This lead us, together with teachers and staff at ASYV, to plan a virtual iGEM/synthetic biology club at the village, which would run for up to ten meetings. We focused on working with a group of computers (engineering) and biology students, and one of our main goals was to show them the intersection of the two fields and promote problem solving, critical thinking, and brainstorming how to solve local and global problems through synthetic biology.
Figure:1 ASYV students listening to the lecture of Igem TAU 2021 team
We realized that, while our team has a lot to offer, certainly having more creative minds together with us would contribute to the scope and depth of the project, and we opened it up for collaboration with other iGEM teams via the Global Slack. We ended up collaborating with several teams: from BOKU-Vienna, Vilnius-Lithuania, TU Delft, Hong Kong HKU, Concordia-Montreal, and MTU-CORK Ireland.
Together with these teams, we came up for an overall plan for the club, including homework assignments which promoted “teams” of students to think of local problems and synthetic biology solutions. The idea was for the club to end with a final presentation of the students synbio solutions; however, we had to cut the club two meetings short due to changes in Rwandan National Exam dates for the students.
Figure 2:Organisational meeting between all collaborating iGEM teams
Regardless of this, we ended up having six meetings over four weeks with the students, where each team took charge of one meeting. Each team presented a simplified version of their project, including engaging questions and interactive activities. With these meetings we wanted to show different possibilities of how synthetic biology can solve different problems in different fields, and feedback from the students was positive and enthusiastic.
Not to be understated though, is the learning experience it was for us and the other participating team. We learned how to teach and engage students from a vastly different culture, and in the process also learned about some of the local issues which students were inspired to think of solutions for with synbio. We also learned from watching other teams present, and how each team was able to add a unique aspect to the overall program that we were offering the students.
Together, our teams also began planning a Phase II of the project (after the virtual club). The idea was to help connect the ASYV students to wider synthetic biology efforts in Rwanda, as well as to hopefully introduce them to local leaders and researchers in the field. While we had felt that it was effective to introduce them to the possibilities of synthetic biology, we knew that We had begun discussions with Synbio Africa and Synbio Rwanda organizations, as well as the iGEM Ambassador from Africa, Erikan Baluku, and the iGEM team from Kenya, AfriSol. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the students at ASYV were sent home for the remainder of the school year (and iGEM season), and we had to put a pause on this idea.
We received positive feedback from students and teachers about the program, and enthusiasm about wanting to continue it in coming years. While certainly second to the feeling of the students and staff at ASYV, we participating iGEM teams also came out feeling a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment and wonder, which simply rubbed off on us by the students. In short, it was very important for us to try and ensure a continuation with future iGEM teams, and make this a sustainable education effort.
Our hopes is that future teams will take our experiences and ideas and push them even further, so we wrote a guidebook detailing all of the information above, as well as the personal experiences of each participating iGEM team and ideas for continuation and expansion of the project. The guidebook is based on our collective experiences as well as feedback we received throughout and after the project from the staff at ASYV. We believe that with this guidebook, teams can go above and beyond what we had originally imagined and we truly hope they take the opportunity to do so.
Click hereto download the ASYV Guidebook.
Alongside exposing the general public to synthetic biology, we decided to encourage the establishment of a new generation of researchers in the field. In order to do so, we turned to “QueenB” - an Israeli association founded by female computer science students as an effort to eliminate bias of female underrepresentation in STEM. The association organizes lectures, master classes, and hackathons for middle school girls interested in programming.
As an iGEM team, we found it extremely important to connect between the students’ skills in programming and our understanding of its biological applications, as synthetic biology in general (and the iGEM competition in particular) are a product of both. So, together with QueenB, we organized a lecture for a couple of groups of girls in order to expose curious minds to a new possible scientific career to pursue.
Each meeting consisted of two main parts: during the first part, we introduced synthetic biology as a field of science and understood its relevance to the world; we talked about its applications in research and medicine. When this background was set in its place, we moved on to talking about the human microbiome and its effects on the whole organism, such as the immune system and the central nervous system. The second part of the lecture was devoted to the practical session. We introduced a clinical problem of personalised medicine: classification of patients due to their microbiome composition and choosing the right treatment based on this classification. Together, we wrote a machine learning-based algorithm which performed the classification and analysed the results.
This way, we showed the connection between programming and biology to a part of the future generation of researchers, which, we hope, will drive the science forward, as well as reduce the gap between mens and womens representation in academic society.
Figure 3:QueenB students listening to the lecture from iGEM TAU 2021 team
Retirement Home Visit
One of our purposes was to expose the general population to the field of synthetic biology as much as possible. Thus, more people will consider using GMO based products in the future. As part of our activities with the non-academic community, we held a lecture for people of elderly age. After introducing ourselves and the iGEM program, we explained our project and its biological background.
Recently, the COVID-19 has pandemic produced a lot of uncertainty, plenty of false information, and even conspiracies about the medical community and the effectiveness of the vaccines. Hence, we decided to dedicate a part of our lecture to talking about the vaccines and their effects. We explained about the human immune system, the general types of vaccines in use today, and the differences between them. We then talked about the vaccine for COVID-19, elaborated about its mechanism, and held an open discussion about their concerns regarding the vaccines. We concluded by shattering misconceptions about vaccines for other severe diseases like polio.
Figure 4:Lecture at the retirement home. Ramat Gan, Israel.
Coller Startup Hackathon
The Coller School of Management at Tel Aviv University facilitates the “Coller Startup Hackathon”which aims to help startups with economical and industrial strategies,
During this 4-day hackathon, we devoted our time and received professional help in figuring out what future markets we intend to target and how to characterize them while examining the existing alternatives and the unique value of our technology. This paid off, as we ended up winning third place in the Hackathon! (The prize money went to feed us during team bonding and presentation video filming!)
We have consulted with different experts in the fields of finances, entrepreneurship, and law/regulation including Erez Gavish, Dr. Eyal Benjamin, Or Kashi, amd Ilanit Kabessa-Cohen. They’ve helped us with the development of:
- A practical use case in the field of agro-tech: After a thorough analysis of the more mature uses of our technology, we’ve decided that the field of agro-tech is the lowest hanging fruit for us, and we can define the technology as “personalized agro-therapy”, which is essentially a bio-fertilizer that contains a microbiome-specific plasmid in a transformable form, designed according to the microbial composition in an environment. previous studies have shown that changes in microbial composition can provide resistance to stress and pests, and even promote plant growth. You can read more about this in the Implementation section.
- Market Analysis:
- User characterization
- Current competition
- Our unique value
The process of investigation of our end users and assessing our ability to market to them has led us to understand that defining farmers as our end users is impractical, and we should consider partnering with existing fertilizing companies and their products.
We were glad to be able to provide an alternative to current fertilizers and pesticides, as chemical fertilizers have profoundly damaged farming territories. You can read more about this in our Implementation section.
When examining what are the unique aspects of this implementation of our technology for our users from an investor’s and user’s perspective, we discovered two main unique improvements:
- Lifetime Value (LTV): although the initial development of a personalized fertilizer might be time- and financially-consuming, once it is developed, the user can continue to enjoy it for a long time
- Sustainability: following the legal cases led against Monsanto , the farming industry became much more conscious of the environmental effect of the used products. Since our technology is focused on healing and improving the natural microbiome, it is likely to be much more eco-friendly and sustainable, and will not cause irreversible changes in the chemical composition of the soil.
The hackathon has sparked our work on our future business model, in addition to the training and feedback we received regarding different pitching styles and ways to present our project.
Tuller Lab Conference - July 7, 2021
We participated in the “Tuller-con” conference of the Tuller Lab headed by Prof. Tamir Tuller at Tel Aviv University. Researchers from leading universities in the country came to present innovative projects in the fields of computational, systems and synthetic biology. We presented a poster of our project and were able to discuss and get incredible feedback from researchers!
- P. Cohen, “Roundup maker to pay $10 billion to settle cancer suits,” The New York Times, 24-Jun-2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/24/business/roundup-settlement-lawsuits.html.