Team:Wellesley Desyne/Human Practices


Wellesley HCI iGEM Team: Welcome

User Research


This summer, the Wellesley College iGEM team worked extensively with users to create a suite of software tools that improve synthetic biology education, as well as efficiency and collaboration in the context of synthetic biology research. We spoke to many potential users, from researchers heading labs in synthetic biology research, to users in the industry, to college students studying biological sciences. We conducted user studies of our programs with volunteer subjects from the MIT and BU iGEM teams as well as students from Wellesley College who had a range of knowledge and exposure to synthetic biology. Receiving feedback from future scientists is a vital part of the user-centered design (UCD) process. We valued all input from the people we collaborated and interacted with during user testing.

Basic Wet-Lab Training via BioBuilder at MIT

Working in the wet lab

At the beginning of the summer, the Wellesley iGEM team received an introduction to synthetic biology and basic wet-lab training by Professor Natalie Kuldell at MIT. After reviewing the core concepts of synthetic biology, we discussed in detail the safety concerns of working in a wet-lab environment. During the wet-lab training, we were also able to conduct well-known and highly regarded experiments such as E.chromi and Eau d'E coli. Thus, through this experience, our team realized that several factors could strongly affect the success or failure of a synthetic biology experiment: labeling equipment properly, meticulously following clearly written instructions, and communicating with other team members.

In addition, we discovered that there are many technical difficulties when working in a laboratory environment, especially for future scientists. Most importantly, there are many safety concerns that are not understood or well known to the public because of synthetic biology’s recent emergence as a leading field. Thus, we realized the importance of educating the public, especially the next generation of synthetic biologists, on the safety concerns of working in a wet-lab environment. The Wellesley iGEM team considered these observations carefully when designing our three projects.

Brainstorming and Collaboration with BU

BU Brainstorm session

We continued our tradition of collaborating with the BU iGEM team. We had a major brainstorming session with BU at the beginning of the summer where the teams introduced their projects to each other. We received basic feedback and brainstormed the initial goals for our three projects: Eugenie, zTree, and Bac To The Future. Eugenie in particular benefited immensely from the initial brainstorming because we needed to learn more about the programming language, Eugene, that was developed to aid synthetic biologists in designing novel genetic circuits. Once we spent time developing several solid ideas for each of our three projects, we invited the BU iGEM team to Wellesley to present our ideas to them and to receive feedback on which versions of the projects to pursue further. Throughout the summer, we kept in contact with the BU iGEM team for information and feedback during project development. As part of our UCD process, we tested our software with members of the BU iGEM team, and their feedback and responses helped to shape further development of our projects.

BU testing Eugenie

Observing BU Lab Meetings

A few times this summer, members of the Eugenie project sat in on BU iGEM lab meetings to observe how members of their research group collaborated while developing novel genetic circuits for their summer research projects. The meetings were informative and crucial in guiding us in the development of software tools that would assist in the novel genetic circuit design process. From observing these meetings, we considered how our programs could help foster collaboration in wet lab research. Some of topics we considered included: how work could be shared and edited between students and PIs, and how our programs would fit in with other the tools that are already being used.

Eliciting Feedback from Users

Eugenie user testing results

As part of our desire to receive feedback concerning the design and usability of our programs from students that have a wide range of exposure to synthetic biology, we tested our programs with BU, MIT and Wellesley students. By observing our users as they used our programs to accomplish the assigned tasks, we were able to refine our applications so that the software tools we had created were not hurdles themselves for the users working in synthetic biology research. We also collected both verbal and written feedback, as well as videotaped user studies for further analysis.

Future Work

While our progress made great leaps and bounds this summer, there is still much work to be done to continue developing our projects beyond the scope of iGEM. We hope to continue receiving user feedback from other members of the synthetic biology community, specifically the BU and MIT iGEM teams. The Eugenie team plans to conduct more user testing to ensure that the program is robust enough that any genetic circuit can be designed. zTree's goals are to animate carousels on and off the screen, rather than simply appearing and disappearing. Additionally, we would like to integrate a search feature that will allow users to search for specific parts at any point in their tree traversal. Finally, Bac To The Future's goals are also to perform more user testing, to create a gesture-based, interactive tool, and to iterate and improve the usability of the application as well as to maximize its potential for educational purposes.