Team:Wageningen UR/Science cafe


Science Cafe


The human outreach activities of this year’s iGEM team from Wageningen UR included different events that have basically one connection. We want to improve the communication between scientists and the public. To do so we started off with a workshop from Paulien Poelarends, who wrote her Msc. thesis about the iGEM teams of 2011 and 2012. What she did was, that she observed them during outreach activities, recorded them and interpreted their way of communication. And what she learned from this was the topic of a masterclass she gave to us. After this masterclass we wanted to get some hands on the topic and decided that a science café would be the right location as it is a quite casual environment.

The science café

On September, 16th café Loburg was the place to be. It was again time for a science café Wageningen evening and this edition was organized by the iGEM team Wageningen with some tips and advices from the science café team. This edition was about “synthetic biology, towards the creation of life?” and we invited two speakers and a side-kick. The speakers were Prof dr. Arnold Driessen (University of Groningen) and dr. Dirk Stemerding (Rathenau institute) and as the side-kick Pieter van Boheemen, who is a DIY biohacker, was invited. This edition of the science café is part of the human outreach of our iGEM team and the goal was to communicate synthetic biology with the general public. To prepare for the science cafe and increase our communication skills a workshop of Paulien Poelarends was followed in advance. She wrote her Msc thesis about last year’s iGEM team and their way of communication and we tried to implement some point of her thesis in our human outreach. And of course the science café Wageningen was the perfect opportunity to observe the way of communication taking place and consider the facts we have learned during the workshop. Furthermore a science café is held in a café which is interesting for our observations for it is an informal and unusual surrounding.

As always during the science café the speakers had the word first. Both, Prof Dr. Arnold Driessen and Dr. Dirk Stemerding had 15 minutes time to introduce their topic to the public, afterwards some music was played and the audience had time for some talking and getting new drinks and after the break it was time for Pieter van Boheemen to explain his work and the general idea of DIY biohacking. He was also the one starting the discussion and question-round everyone was looking forward too.

Heated discussion and team members

The first one who had the word was Prof. Dr. Arnold Driessen from the department of molecular microbiology at the University of Groningen. He gave a short introduction to synthetic biology in general and what kinds of research is going on right now. He also explained the way of standardizing it by using biobricks which are, like lego, parts that can be used to build a system on cell level. This is also the principle used in the iGEM competition. Furthermore he stressed out the great importance of being able to synthesize genes. Then Dr. Dirk Stemerding from the Rathenau institute told us about his work and their effort about communicating synthetic biology to the public. He also pointed out the effort they want to take to include iGEM teams in the future to successfully inform the public about ongoing research and the threats or safety regulations that have to be taken into account. Last but not least Pieter van Boheemen was given the chance to look at synthetic biology from a different point of view. Pieter studied biotechnology and now work at The Waag in Amsterdam as a DIY biohacker. His goal is to show that interference with nature can take place everywhere and that also safety is possible everywhere. Also he stressed that ever since human existence we interfered with nature and that it is nothing that currently arose. Furthermore he wanted the public to know that nothing forbidden is done at those open labs as the one in Amsterdam where he works.

After everyone had the chance to give his presentation the public was invited to join a discussion and ask questions. The amount of questions was enormous and a lot of interesting questions were asked to all three guests. They were of great diversity about ethical problems of synthetic biology (what if we do something that is not needed?), the difference between synthetic biology and normal biology, the difficulties over successfully communicating synthetic biology with the public and the interests of the public, the fact of having open source ideas or having project patented which is important to get money for further research, and about creating new chassis for research and production while there are great organisms available.

To put it all in a nutshell it was a great evening and was worth the effort the iGEM team did to make this happen. The public and the speakers seemed to be satisfied with the science café and enjoyed their evening. And as usual in a science café it was a great opportunity to communicate a scientific topic to the public and attract their interest.