Team:Jefferson VA SciCOS/Human Practices


Human Practices

In order to educate our school community about the rapidly emerging fields of genetic engineering and synthetic biology, a few members of the 2013 team started a club this year that was entirely focused on providing informational lectures, conducting outreach, and recruiting new members to participate in the 2014 iGEM competition. During meetings of Synthetic Biology Society, Sahitya Allam and Manotri Chaubal delivered lectures about basic topics such as DNA structure and replication, information flow from a gene to a protein, regulation of genes in bacteria using the operon system, and the 3A assembly technique to construct a part in synthetic biology. After lecturing on these topics, the club encouraged team members who were interested in applying their knowledge of biology and synthetic biology specifically to submit a proposal to join the 2014 iGEM team. It required that members submit this proposal by December 15th, so that the club leaders could have sufficient time over winter break to review the proposals, provide substantive feedback on their method of implementation and feasibility, and invite members who submitted the best proposals and displayed the most interest in the club to join the iGEM team. The club received approximately 15 complete proposals this year, of which 6 were selected because they demonstrated a solid understanding of synthetic biology principles.

After these six members accepted the invitation to join the iGEM team, each of their proposals was deliberated on extensively in order to select the idea for this year’s project. We found that Archis Bhandarkar’s concept of a 4-node bacterial computer to solve the Traveling Salesman Problem was the most feasible idea to implement given the resources in the TJHSST Biotechnology Lab and the knowledge base of the team members. In addition, since much of it was adapted from the work of the 2007 Davidson/Western Missouri iGEM team, who attempted to use a 3-node bacterial computer to solve the Hamiltonian Path Problem, we assumed that troubleshooting would be much easier. For instance, we could utilize a similar method to construct the fourth node and if we were to run into problems in experimentation, we would always be able to compare our protocols with the ones that were developed by the 2007 team.

Feedback was also provided to each of the members who submitted proposals on ways to improve the experimental design. The most focus was placed on improving the design in such a way that the overall project would be more applicable to synthetic biology or would be more feasible to carry out given our school’s resources. The feedback turned out to be a crucial component of one of the club’s main outreach efforts – the prep labs. Earlier in November, we won the One Question Award, a grant of up to $1000 given to certain clubs that sponsor activities to address the question ‘How can we maintain a passion for learning in a school system where a pronounced emphasis on achieving good grades has a tendency to reduce genuine interest in gaining a deeper understanding of subject material?’ We proposed to introduce underclassmen to the resources of the Biotechnology Lab by teaching them basic techniques that could be applied to a number of genetic engineering applications. These basic techniques would follow the order of the 3A Assembly process to create a part. By learning these techniques and applying them to a project, which could be taken from the proposals the club members submitted earlier, students would be inspired to gain a deeper understanding of a subject area through hands-on learning, similar to how a scientist or engineer would apply concepts that he or she learned in college to a research study or application. We believed that exposing students to real-life applications of the things they read in biology textbooks and the like could incite true passion in students so that they may strive to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the subject. We even proposed to showcase the projects that students would create at a “Mini-Jamboree” event, which would be like a science fair where students would explain their projects to teachers and officers of the club in order to showcase their research and hard work and of course, to win candy and prizes.

Unfortunately, we were never able to follow through with our plan to host the Mini-Jamboree event. Due to the erratic pattern of weather this winter, we lost several days of school to snow and dangerously frigid temperatures. As a result, we were only able to complete a few of the prep labs and were not able to help the students start a project of their own for the Mini-Jamboree. We taught the students antiseptic techniques as well as how to navigate the lab, how to make agar solution and plates, how to streak bacteria onto a plate, and how to do a transformation with competent cells. We originally planned to also show them how to make liquid cultures and perform a restriction digest/ligation, in the order of the 3A assembly, but we lost so many days that we were forced to finish the prep labs and continue with our own project. However, we actively encouraged the students who participated in the prep labs to observe us while we worked in the lab and to possibly help out if they felt comfortable with the techniques.

We also participated in the annual Techstravaganza event at our school, a major outreach event hosted by TWIST (Tomorrow’s Women in Science and Technology) and Biology Society. Techstravaganza is a science exploration day where students can attend various math and science booths, perform hands-on experiments, and talk to professionals from prominent organizations in the region such as Northrop Grumman and NASA. The iGEM team ran two booths again this year. We re-used the popular candy DNA booth, for which students model the structure of DNA using candy items such as twizzlers, gummy bears, marshmallows, and toothpicks. For the other booth, we did a demonstration of a banana DNA extraction to simulate the miniprep procedure. We let the students mash the bananas first and then we assisted them in adding the various “reagents” to the mixture, such as liquid soap to break down the cell membranes. While we did the demonstration, we explained the theory of how these various reagents are responsible for breaking down components of the cell in order to be left with just the DNA at the end. We felt that both booths this year were very successful, and we plan to continue holding booths at Techstravaganza as it is a very good way to pique interest in biotechnology in young children and the greater community.

Towards the end of the year, we gave two important talks as part of the One Question and Slivoskey grants for clubs awarded by our school. At tjSTAR, a symposium held annually to showcase the research done by students and to invite researchers to talk about their own work and experiences, we gave a small talk about the various outreach efforts we conducted in accordance with the One Question. It was followed by a brief question and answer session during which attendees of the session could ask us questions regarding the grant process and the activities we sponsored. We also gave a presentation for the Slivoskey Grant, which is awarded to one club each year which has demonstrated substantial commitment to enriching the TJHSST community through outreach and service. Our presentation discussed the various things we did this year for the One Question Grant, the approximate budget we allotted for outreach, and the things we plan on doing in future years.

Lastly, we realized last year that social media was a great way to reach out to the student body. We created a Facebook page for the iGEM team, where we post updates on our project as well as neat things that are currently being done in synthetic biology. As of now, 89 people like our page, and the number continues to grow, albeit a little slowly. We hope that by using other forms of social media in the future, such as Twitter and Tumblr, we will be able to reach out to more students interested in order to further promote interest in synthetic biology and the iGEM competition.