• Overview
  • The Class
  • Class Safety
  • Splash! 2011
  • Collaboration

Human Practices

Synthetic Biology is a field that combines concepts and methods from a variety of scientific areas. This inherent inter-departmental attitude is what drives the innovation in synbio research. As a diverse group of students (with backgrounds in everything from physics to biology to computer science) this idea was central to our work as a team this summer. It was therefore important that we shared the concepts of synthetic biology with the greater Boston community to gather ideas from many different scientific perspectives and to share the spirit of collaboration with our neighbors.

We decided to reach out to our community with a basic two-week synthetic biology class and by collaborating with other iGEM teams to help them in their projects. Our goals for the class were not just to teach the basic laboratory techniques to those who wanted to learn, but to emphasize the diversity of the field, and the problems and possibilities that exist within synbio today. The most important part of the class, however, was to encourage excitement and new ideas about synthetic biology in as many different people as possible not necessarily associated with biology or engineering.

We posted materials to the official stellar site, but our daily plan and protocols were organized on our openwetware page.

Splash 2011

To expand outreach of synthetic biology to secondary and middle school students, we are holding a class in the coming month introducing young students to the wide range of possibilities of synthetic biology. Our class will be focused on very basic circuit designs to illustrate how building more complex circuits can lead to higher-level behavior and function. Here's a link to our class description: Splash! 2011.

The Class

In an effort to introduce our fellow Bostonians to the world of synthetic biology, we wrote the curriculum and taught a two-week class for any person from any background with interest in getting their feet wet in basic synthetic biology. Thanks to generous donations from EMD-Millipore and New England Biolabs and support from the Chemical Engineering, Biological Engineering and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Departments at MIT, we were able to budget twelve students to each have their own mini synthetic biology projects. The Knight Lab at MIT was kind enough to let us use their labspace. We had a number of applications for the class, and accepted a wide array of students including freshmen exploring different majors, architecture students, and Ph.D candidates from Boston University.

Our lectures and discussion sessions were open to anyone who wanted to join, even if we could only finance 12 students in the lab. Because the class was for people of all experience levels, our first lecture started as an explanation of the most important biological mechanisms. Building on the basics, the second lecture introduced synthetic biology both within the context of iGEM and as it is understood in some of the most significant synbio laboratories. The third lecture explained, at a high level, intricate circuits and systems in many chassis developed in labs at MIT and Caltech, and the greater applications of such research. We brought in guest lecturers, such as Prof. Douglas Densmore of Boston University, to talk about their work in different approaches to synbio, and had students read and explain important scientific papers to practice finding and comprehending the significant conclusions in dense academic papers.

When we felt like the basics of synthetic biology had been covered, we were keen to explore its public perception as well as the possibilities of its future. In the last week of the class, the lectures were replaced with involved discussion groups on topics from the ethics of synthetic biology to its public image to the problem of intellectual property. We challenged the students to choose one intriguing paper in synthetic biology, present it, and then craft their own experiments to extend the research in a new and exciting way.

The class as a whole was a rewarding experience for us. Not only did we reach out to people far beyond the scope of MIT to both explain and explore the field of synthetic biology, but we began to understand the possibilities and problems of synbio on a whole new dimension through teaching the concepts to others.

Class Safety

The safety of our students was a high priority. Every student in the lab section was trained by the MIT Environmental Health and Safety department in BL1 practices and Hazardous Waste Disposal. We (the instructors) cleaned and prepared the lab space every night before class and made sure all reagents and materials were available to the students in the morning. The Knight Lab was a safe place to perform our BL1 experiments. No risks were taken in our classroom. Our lectures were given in meeting rooms and presentation rooms throughout the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory building, well outside of the Knight Lab setting.

Lack of organization and sufficient space looked to pose a problem early on in the class. However, by splitting the students into two groups and dividing the class between two rooms, we were able to avoid crowding in the lab space and teach a successful class on synthetic biology and its scientific and social influence.

Collaboration and Outreach

We helped out a few other universities too! We collaborated with the BU-Wellesley Software team to assist them in their goal of creating an ambient auxiliary system for the laboratory setting, by helping them bridge the designer and end-user gap. Their project, appropriately called "Puppetshow," aims to automate laboratory processes through the use of automated liquid-handling robots while preserving the sensibility and communicability of a human researcher. Wellesley students visited our lab twice and we provided them with information for the HCI (human-computer interaction) aspects of their project, including showing them the techniques used on our lab.

We also served as Beta testers for BU's software project, including providing a robot configuration for them and allowing them to install their software on our igem computer to get feedback from us. Finally, our team programmed a robot that was used to characterize parts made by the BU iGEM team.

Depicted above is the 2011 MIT iGEM team's addition to the DARPA funded robot in collaboration with BU. We programmed a user interface for the colony picker that can be found here. A video of one of our instructors using our interface to guide the robot can be found here. The scanner can also be used a 2D barcode scanner, thanks to a collaboration with Ginkgo that allowed us to port their technology to the scanner.