Team:Waterloo/Human Practices



Human Practices

Science stands in an exciting position; in labs all over the world scientists work tirelessly to master the precise workings of cellular machinery, the genetic code, and intricate protein structures. Applications facilitated by the development of new technologies become more obvious and more essential each day. Problems we face in world-hunger, pollution, and disease, necessitate the development of these groundbreaking technologies. Science, and in particular biology, has advanced to a critical stage, which promises to deliver exciting, life changing, and even paradigm shifting advances.

Well, at least that’s what we think.

As budding synthetic biologists and students of science, the development of a game-changing technology is something that excites and intrigues us. However, not everyone feels the same way. Much of the world young or old, educated or uneducated, simply doesn’t get the same thrill from science.

Our goal is to educate and excite people about synthetic biology such that our contributions will encourage the development of a society that is scientifically literate.


Outreach & Synthetic Biology

The newness of synthetic biology means that much of the population is not even aware that it exists (see Awareness & Attitudes Study). Therefore, an important aspect of our outreach efforts is to introduce the topic of synthetic biology and show its potential. We also hope to give people the foundational information that they need in order to understand future scientific developments. This form of outreach will help to improve the scientific literacy of the general population.

Another emerging issue is misconceptions held by the general public. In the development of synthetic biology, as with many new technologies, there is still much to learn and discover. As a result, the information made available to the public is often not a comprehensive, accurate picture of synthetic biology.

The following are the goals that we hope to achieve through educational outreach:

  • Inform the public about synthetic biology
  • Promote an education in science
  • Showcase opportunities in the field of science
  • Create an enriched science experience for students
  • Broaden the influence of iGEM

For more information about outreach and synthetic biology see:

  • This ground breaking study by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, Inc. on awareness and attitudes of the public about synthetic biology found that 9 of 10 individuals think the public should know more about developping technologies
  • 2020 Science aims to provide a complete picture on the development of new sciences
  • Synthetic Biology Project examines the development of synthetic biology

The Events

The method that we have chosen to achieve our goals is science education. This is the avenue most accessible and familiar to us as science students. By participating in events in our community we are able to influence multiple audiences by different means. Our outreach efforts are primarily focused at young students still deciding whether to continue in the field of science, students pursing science education, and the general public. Some of the events facilitated delivering the information on a small scale (in depth discussions with one or two students) while other events necessitated speaking more generally to larger groups. The events fostered synthetic biology awareness and were great learning experiences for our team.

ESQ Partnership

ESQ (Engineering Science Quest) is a day camp hosted at the University of Waterloo that brings hundreds of curious young minds to Waterloo each year to learn more about science and engineering. We held a weekly activity for the campers that introduced concepts of DNA and synthetic biology. The campers were aged 10-13 with only basic knowledge of molecular biology based topics. After learning about the basis of synthetic biology and some of the exciting potential applications, the campers extracted DNA from their own cheek cells. The activity allowed us to share our excitement and passion for science with young budding scientists. This program is something we plan to develop and continue in the future.

Students were also given a protocol to extract DNA from fruit with materials that can be found around the house, you can find this protocol here: download the protocol. We hope that this initiative will help engage students outside of the classroom and get them excited about science.

You can also download the presentation we used to introduce concepts like DNA and synthetic biology to the students (approximate age of the campers was 10-12)

Through ESQ, members of the team also participated in a week long outreach orientation. During the week we learned the skills necessary to effectively deliver science outreach. You can get some tips and review what we learned by checking out this document: Outreach Orientation

Campus Day

On Wednesday, March 17th several hundred potential Waterloo students were able to take part in a lab tour where they were able to participate in hands on activities. The high school students learned more about iGEM, synthetic biology, and opportunities in science. Students were able to view GFP in Arabidopsis thaliana under a fluorescent microscope, learn about our past projects, practice pippetting, learn about gel electrophoresis, view results for gel electrophoresis, learn about the importance of model organisms, examine RFP plates, and learn about past iGEM projects. This event allowed us to illustrate the exciting opportunities in science and engineering to students beginning post-secondary education.

This was a really rewarding experience for us because we were able to make a strong impression on students who were trying to choose their science career path. Many of the students who participated in the event were unsure what options were available to them as science students. When we educated the group about iGEM and synthetic biology they were extremely interested in how they could pursue this path in their education and what possible careers it could lead to. Some of the students stayed in the lab for a long period of time checking out all of the demonstrations and trying to gain as much experience as possible. It was really great to see high school students so keen about expanding their science horizons. It has inspired us to try and enrich the science experience of as many students as possible.

CACUSS (Canadian Assoication of College and University Student Services)

This conference held on June 14th, was for individuals who work in the student services area at universities from all across Canada. We featured our "work alongside other student" projects. The goal was to educate individuals who do not work directly with synthetic biology but are important in fostering a healthy scientific community. We featured our iGEM work and information about the future of synthetic biology. Visitors to our display had the opportunity to check out demos featuring gel electrophoresis, DNA, and RFP. We hoped to educate the group about what synthetic biology is and teach them about some basic techniques.

This event allowed us to communicate with members of the public who did not know very much about synthetic biology. At first, many of them seemed very unsure about what we were trying to accomplish. Some people even likened it to genetic engineering disasters or out-of-control pathogens. Once we explained more clearly the potential and goals behind iGEM people felt much more comfortable and engaged. The hands-on displays were very helpful in sharing some foundational information that will help individuals to understand scientific developments in the future. Having demonstrations showed the group that modern science is not something that happens in secret laboratories but can be accessible on different levels to virtually anyone.

Biology Reunion

At this event, on September 26th, our iGEM team had the opportunity to speak with former Waterloo biology students. We enjoyed being able to show alumni the work that was going on in the biology department. Individuals were very interested to learn more about what is new in the world of science. The group had the chance to check out hands on displays about DNA and RFP.

This was an exciting audience to be able to address. This group has the foundational knowledge necessary to understand developments in modern science but are not always on the cusp of the newest scientific developments. The alumni were very excited to learn about the developments in science and to see that these developments were happening in their own community!

Bio reunion.jpeg

Student Life 101

On July 25th, 2009 future students accepted to Waterloo visited campus to catch the flavour of what Waterloo has to offer. iGEM was featured along with some of the other engineering student initiatives. We set up a display with some interactive demonstrations to educate students and their parents about synthetic biology. This event gave students an overview of our work and information about how to learn more.

IGEM - Student life 101 2009.jpg

Science Communication

Even intricate and effective science tools risk becomming obsolete/unused without a means of disseminating results and information to the greater public. We feel that in order for synthetic biology to expand from universities and science labs into industry, media, and the mind's eye of the general public, regional networks of synthetic biologists must be strengthened. With increased communication the current efforts of synthetic biologists can be supported with feedback and analysis. Moreover, by strengthening our own regional community we will be able to acquire for ourselves, a clearer picture of the state of synthetic biology and thus be able to better convey that picture to other audiences. Our goal was to help lay the foundations for the type of community that will be useful and necessary in the forseeable future.

oGEM: Gathering of Ontario iGEM Teams, May 29th 2009

To kick off a summer of research, the particpants of iGEM from across Ontario gathered at the University of Waterloo on May 29th. Members from each of the Ontario teams were present (University of Toronto, Queen's, and University of Ottawa) as well as synthetic biology/iGEM enthusiasts from University of Guelph and University of Toronto Mississauga. This was the first time that Ontario iGEM teams had met in the context of a regional synthetic biology conference .

The day kicked off with the keynote address which was given by Andrew Hessel on "Why Synthetic Biology Is So Disruptive" To view a movie of his presentation check out this link: Video: Hessel. The talk, open to the public, was insightful for iGEM participants as well as Waterloo students and professors wishing to learn more about what synthetic biology is and where it is headed for the future.

The day then turned over to discussions which centered around creating an Ontario community of iGEM teams as well as goals for creating more communication and support between teams. Mads Kaern, advisor to the University of Ottawa team made a presentation on "How to Run a Successful iGEM Team" which was insightful for veteran and rookie teams.

In addition, the gathering was also an opportunity for teams to get to know one another before heading down to MIT. The meeting was a great success and the first of more regional gatherings to come.


Since then oGEM (group of Ontario iGEM teams) has met on a bi-weekly basis via teleconference to discuss issues and ideas for our regional community. In the future we hope to see this organization (independent of an individual iGEM team) become an important resource to Ontario iGEM teams and for educating the general public about synthetic biology.

What We Accomplished

Upon reflection we feel that we have achieved the following goals through our outreach efforts:

  • Introduced synthetic biology to individuals who knew nothing about it
  • Educated multiple audiences on the fundamentals of science such that they will be able to better understand future scientific information and developments
  • Excited young minds about science
  • Strengthened our regional synthetic biology community
  • Communicated the work of other iGEM teams and the benefit and goals of the iGEM competition
  • Increased communication between local synthetic biologists
  • Gained insight and experience into what the public believes about modern science
  • Developed activities and displays to be used and improved upon in the future

Conclusions & Future Plans

We plan to continue our outreach efforts in the future. We plan to expand our efforts and continue to educate the public about synthetic biology and share our love of science. In the future our efforts will continue to center around science education. Our profile in our community is increasing as iGEM becomes a familiar group and synthetic biology ceases to sound frightening and gains familiarity. We hope that the Ontario community of iGEM teams will continue to grow and include teams from all across Canada, helping to strengthen the synthetic biology community across the country. As members of the Waterloo iGEM team we are proud to educate multiple audiences and to share our knowledge and passion with the world.