Team:HKU-HKBU/Human Practice Lecture


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Introductory lecture on synthetic biology

A. The need for more education

In Hong Kong, synthetic biology is less well known than biotechnology within the scientific academia, let alone the general public, no less because it is a newly established discipline than because very few researchers engage in such research. This year, the human practices division held a lecture at the Hong Kong Biotechnology Education Resource Centre (HKBERC) located within SSY Ho Yu College and Primary School in Tung Chung, Hong Kong. The HKBERC was founded by Dr William Mak, formerly of the Genome Research Centre at HKU and the University of Toronto, under the auspices of Sik Sik Yuen (SSY) – a major Taoist (ancient Chinese pantheist religion) organization which runs a number of schools in Hong Kong. SSY has donated more than HKD 3 million for the establishment of Mobile Labs – specially furnished caravans– to contribute to the scientific education in Hong Kong. These vans are driven to different primary and secondary schools in Hong Kong upon request, and the teachers from corresponding schools can demonstrate different experiments using equipment in the lab. Schoolchildren aged from 6 to 18 are given the opportunity to have hands-on experience on biochemical experimentation.

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Felix can hardly contain his excitement at the sight of the Mobile Lab Caravan

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Interior view of the Mobile Lab

B. SSY Ho Yu College/Primary School - A pioneer in scientific education

Furthermore, SSY has contributed to the establishment of a university-standard biochemical laboratory at one of its secondary and primary schools – SSY College and Primary School. This year, Yan-Lin Li and Felix Wong from the Human Practices Division visited the laboratory to give an introductory lecture on synthetic biology and Bactomotors. The target audience were students at the College/Primary School and other high school science whiz-kids in Hong Kong, aged 6-18.

C. Content of our lecture

Originally, our talk consisted of a brief introduction to biochemistry and molecular biology but this was aborted as we found that these have already been learnt by the audience... So we proceded to our introduction on synthetic biology, where the concepts of biobricks, systems biology, bioinformatics, etc. were discussed.

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Yan-Lin was apparently more scared than impressed when a 7-year-old correctly answered his question on mRNAs...

Afterwards, a presentation on the HKU-HKBU Bacto-motor project was presented. The audience’s understanding on the subject was assessed at regular intervals through questions and answers. Both students and teachers at the laboratory were very impressed by the ingenuity of our team. Nevertheless they provided many insightful suggestions that we would have to incorporated into our project had it not been the wiki freeze...

D. Budding scientists given heads-up for research career

After the more formal and intellectual talk on synthetic biology and our project, there was a small group discussion between the students and the two medics. Most students were interested in a career in biochemical research in the future, and the two medics were able to give them practical advice as to how they could achieve their goals. Also, they provided a realistic portrayal of the life of a research graduate student/ academic staff.

E. Students demonstrated sophisticated understanding in bioethics and biosafety

Finally, we discussed on the ethical and safety issues regarding synthetic biology and we are delighted that these precocious students showed a deep and thorough understanding in the arguments for and against genetic engineering. They are also well versed in laboratory safety regulations and protocols – apparently Dr Mak taught them much more than hard science! In the end, both tutors and students agreed that the session was extremely fruitful and we are looking forward to more future interactions between senior and junior science students!

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Students giving a round of applause at the end of the lecture

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One day, when some of these budding scientists grow up and grab a Nobel...