This year, the William and Mary iGEM team sought to be inclusive in all aspects of our project; therefore, inclusivity played a role in every major decision our team made throughout the season. Our team realizes that inclusivity can come in many different forms from racial/gender inclusivity to project accessibility to information availability. As a result, our team incorporated these values into our project in the following ways: through our team’s demographics - putting diversity and inclusion into practice; through our project choice and design; and through our education efforts in the local community. By engaging in these activities, our team has made inclusivity a guiding principle of our iGEM experience.
Inclusivity within our Team
Our team realizes the importance of diversity in the sciences (and in all fields) and as a result, we wanted to ensure that our team embodied diversity and inclusivity. Choosing a diverse team ensures a variety of different backgrounds and viewpoints, with these factors being reflected in the ingenuity and design of the team project. Additionally, studies have suggested that more diverse teams have higher creativity and productivity levels. Understanding the benefits of diversity led us to choose the most diverse and exceptionally qualified team. Of the ten members of our team, half are students of color, including one of our team captains, and seven are female-identifying, including both of our team captains. Our team recognizes that while diversity immediately benefits our team, it will also benefit future generations of scientists who will have excellent role models involved in science.
This year, our team’s goal was to make an affordable, widely accessible orthogonality sensing system. We accomplished this goal through the development of a sensor circuit system and a multilevel model. When our team started our literature review surrounding the concept of orthogonality, it became clear to us that many of the orthogonality assessing methods extending beyond burden are expensive and inaccessible to many teams. As our 2021 project is designed to be used by other teams, our team wanted to make our project accessible to as many teams as possible. As these expensive methods (such as RNA-Seq) are currently the most accurate ways with which to assess orthogonality, our team wanted to still include them in our model for teams with the resources to utilize these methods. However, we realized that it would severely limit the usability of our model to require that all teams use these methods for our model’s output. As a result, our data-driven model has various levels of potential input based on cost and accessibility of the method. Teams only need to offer data for the third level to obtain an orthogonality assessment. The first level includes collecting RNA-seq data, which while not accessible to many teams is the gold standard of orthogonality assessment. Our next level takes inputs from qRT-PCR, which is also very expensive. So to make orthogonality assessment more accessible, our team developed a third level -- a system of circuits that are inexpensive and easy to use. This level utilizes input values from the sensor circuits that our team developed. Our in vivo sensor circuits cover all levels of the central dogma, allowing for orthogonality testing of transcription, translation, and post translational modifications. Additionally, some other determinants of host stress are also sensed by our circuits, including heat shock production and a decrease in biofilm formation. With this sensor system, and our model, teams will be able to pinpoint which host processes their circuit is interfering with and will be able to use this information to improve their circuits’ orthogonality. Through cotransformation of our plasmid with the team’s desired plasmid, fluorescence outputs can be generated which can then be used as inputs for our model, providing all teams with the ability to apply our model to their circuits and improve their circuit’s orthogonality, regardless of resources.
This year, our team’s education efforts with the local community centered around inclusion. We focused on meeting with and educating local retirement communities about synthetic biology. This demographic is often overlooked by science programming and education and as a result, our team wanted to try and fill in this gap. After meeting with several of these retirement homes, it became clear that this population was very interested in synthetic biology and the field of genetic engineering as a whole. During our presentation, retirement community members were attentive and asked many questions, such as “Can you visually tell the difference between animal and plant cells?” and “How was Dolly cloned?”. Residents were excited to learn about the principles of synthetic biology, with one resident exclaiming, “I can’t believe I actually understood what you guys were talking about!” However, there was one conversation that we had with the residents that really stood out to us. After our presentation during a question and answer period, one of the residents noted how comforting it was to know that scientists all over the world are working towards the common goal of preventing further SARS-COV-2 spread. It became clear to us that our presentation served a greater purpose than just teaching the residents about synthetic biology. Learning about science and its advances proved to be comforting to the residents, decreasing anxiety surrounding any personal health issues or the SARS-COV-2 pandemic. After realizing the importance of educating this group due to sheer interest of the residents and to help decrease anxiety, our team wanted to help other teams reach out to this age group. As a result, our team developed a pamphlet (attached below) to help get teams started talking to this age group. Our pamphlet includes advice for creating the presentation, giving the presentation, and what content to cover. Our team realizes that many teams are pressed for time during the iGEM season and to help these teams, we provided our team’s Powerpoint presentation (attached below) for other teams to use. Our presentation was reviewed by representatives from a retirement community for advice on how to effectively communicate this advanced scientific information to a group with varying scientific backgrounds. To learn more about our team’s education efforts please click here
Our team was interested in talking to residents in retirement homes about synthetic biology. We are aware that this community is often overlooked when discussing synthetic biology, often due to lack of access to scientific programming in retirement homes. However, after presenting at retirement homes, our team found that these individuals were eager to learn about this field. Our presentations covered concepts including genetic engineering, cells, synthetic biology, and applications of synthetic biology. In addition, our presentation had interactive components, such as a guess the cell type game. In order to ensure that our presentation was able to effectively communicate scientific information, our team had it reviewed by two members of a retirement home. They offered advice for how to better present this information to a non-scientific audience and made suggestions regarding potential graphics to better our presentation. We then made these changes to our presentation.
Residents appeared very interested in the presentation. We received numerous questions during our presentations such as “Can you visually tell the difference between animal and plant cells?” and “How was Dolly cloned?”. Residents were excited to learn about the principles of synthetic biology, with one resident exclaiming, “I can’t believe I actually understood what you guys were talking about!” Further, we found that these presentations played an additional role. Learning about science and its advances proved to be comforting to the residents, decreasing anxiety surrounding any personal health issues or the SARS-COV-2 pandemic. In regards to the current global pandemic, one resident stated, “It makes me feel better to know that so many people around the world are working together to help stop the COVID-19 crisis”.
As our team found such a value in discussing synthetic biology with retirement communities, we wanted to establish a way for other teams to have positive experiences interacting with these communities. We developed an educational pamphlet with tips and tricks about presenting to retirement communities, including advice for creating the presentation, giving the presentation, and what content to cover. Additionally, we attached our presentation for other teams to use. This presentation was reviewed by two individuals at a retirement home for feedback to make the science of the presentation as clear as possible.
Second Sunday Fest
On the second Sunday of every month, Williamsburg holds the Second Sunday Festival, offering local artisans a chance to showcase their work. Through a partnership with the local community, our team was able to participate in this festival with the aim of teaching children synthetic biology concepts.
In order to adhere to the festival's arts theme, our team developed a synthetic biology-based arts and crafts project, gene circuits bracelets. Our team wanted to find a way to teach complicated concepts of biology in a simple, visual format. The gene circuit bracelet art project centers around the sequential order of genetic inserts and the necessary components of these inserts. Every insert requires a promoter and terminator; therefore, participants started their bracelets with a green bead, representing the promoter, and ended the circuit with a red bead, representing the terminator. Between the two beads, participants could add beads from a wide variety of colors. Each color bead represented a gene for a different “superpower”. For example, adding a blue bead to a bracelet gave the participant a mermaid tale, while a pink bead enabled the power to turn things into cotton candy. While technically, genes are not located back-to-back, our team had to apply the concept to a bracelet. The children at the fair loved this activity, putting lots of thought and effort into which “superpower genes” they wanted to select. One individual decided to make a bracelet from entirely pink genes, because they really loved cotton candy. Overall, this bracelet method seemed to get the basics of insert construction across while still enabling kids to have fun.
Additionally, our team took empty sterile pipette tip boxes from our lab and allowed the children to decorate these boxes using colored paper, sequins, and, of course, science stickers. We wanted to fight the stigma of laboratory materials being seen as scary, or overly complex. Currently, these children are now sleeping with pipette tip boxes in their rooms; hopefully, making them more comfortable with scientific materials.
This year, our team spoke to individuals on both sides of the age spectrum about synthetic biology. We reached out to younger age groups at an arts festival through having them create gene circuit bracelets. Additionally, to communicate with those on the older side to the age spectrum, we spoke to individuals at retirement communities. We found this age group to be very interested in the field of synthetic biology and to be potential supporters of the field. As a result, we created a guide pamphlet for talking to this age group and a sample presentation geared towards interacting with those in retirement communities.
The William and Mary iGEM team considered inclusivity in every aspect of our project, striving to make the measurement of orthogonality and the field of synthetic biology as a whole widely accessible. Our team was able to accomplish our goals by forming a diverse team, developing a multilevel data-driven model, and talking to underrepresented age groups in synthetic biology education.