Team:Marburg:Policy Practices


SynAesthetic biology: science without sight


1. Our approach:

We looked at the problems visually impaired people have to face by visiting the only school where blind pupils can take their final secondary exams in Germany. But this was only the starting point for a successful cooperation that made us aware of epistemological questions and the social injustice that still remains, even though we are living in a modern society.

2. Evaluation of our approach:

When we planned our first meeting with the visually impaired pupils we did not yet know how to present our experiments in an appropriate way. But we learned very much and finally were able to create a barrier free laboratory and serve their needs by e.g. preparing molecular models with special surface properties. We realized how visually biased we and even our scientific methods are.

3. Impact on our scientific project:

Before we started our collaboration with visually impaired people we already started analysing flagella using methods like electron microscopy. But when we realized that our visual focus might mislead us we also started using other methods to analyse the motility of cells by the conversion of their movement into sound.

4. How others might benefit from our project:

As we put great effort in the design of our experiments we want to share our script with others for the use within and beyond iGEM. We also want to draw other teams and scientists attention towards the problems that might appear if we rely too much on our visual experience. As we pointed out how much we can profit from the integration of visually impaired scientists we are optimistic to improve their situation in the field of science.

iGEM-Team Marburg meets Blista pupils

In one of our iGEM-meetings a discussion about different analysis techniques and the information that can be gained from it started. We came to the conclusion that for example the UV signal created from an HPLC run does not necessarily contain less information than a picture taken using a fluorescence microscope. Nevertheless due to the more abstract nature it seems to be less reliable than the actual picture which rather makes you feel like you can actually “see” the real facts. Thus we realized what high value we ascribe to and how reliable we estimate our visual experience to be. In a more general sense it is remarkable that even in a field of science like synthetic microbiology which subject of research is not directly accessible by our senses, the paradigm “true equals visualisable” is still maintained. Due to the strong influence of this hypothesis on the way research is conducted we feel the need to question this hypothesis. Hence we wanted to create a "Policy and Practice" project that allows us to combine our aim of getting others interested in Synthetic Biology while at the same time consider the fundamental epistemological question of the relation between visual experience and knowledge of nature.

In Marburg is the only school in Germany for visually impaired pupils where they can reach their Abitur, the final exam of secondary education in Germany. What is really impressive to see is how much their syllabus is just like that of any ordinary school. The pupils get the chance to participate in practical courses as part of their biology or chemistry classes. Of course there are special safety precautions as they for example do all their experiments in a basin to avoid danger from spilled chemicals. Furthermore they use special equipment, e.g. an “optophone” that transforms a color into sound so that the pupils can observe color changes.For these purposes the school employs specially trained teachers that teach only small courses of up to 12 pupils. This also means that they are able to individually support each pupil. Since these pupils do not rely on their visual experience as much as we do we were interested in finding out how they approach certain problems.

Visit at Blista

To understand how daily lessons in the school for visually impaired students are taking place we supported them during their preparations for the Abitur exams and we visited some of their lessons. What we learned is that even if the pupils might be slower in some regards they learn basically in the same way as pupils do at an ordinary school. Obviously there are differences in the way things are taught as for example no black board is used but all materials are printed on a special printer in Braille. Furthermore the pupils use their laptops in most lessons as they have a device connected to them that in combination with a screen-reader software enables them to read texts displayed on their laptop. For us it was interesting to see how critical they were towards the facts they were taught. They asked many questions until they really understood the content instead of just learning by heart. After we began understanding their lessons, we also wanted to draw their interest towards the field of Synthetic Biology. That is why we invited them to visit us in our lab to do some experiments. We started with a presentation as an introduction to the topic of Synthetic Biology which already led to some discussions that indeed showed the great interest of the pupils in our work. Afterwards they performed three experiments in small groups that cover basic topics of biochemistry. In this context they learned how to use a pipette and tried to find the mean error of them. Furthermore they learned about the necessity of sterile working and measured a growth curve of bacteria. While we had lunch together in our refectory the pupils asked how we use these techniques in our research which resulted in interesting conversation about our and their daily life. To conclude the day we introduced them to the iGEM competition and our project. The pupils were really interested and impressed by the possibilities Synthetic Biology offers. In our case especially by the capability to treat a severe disease such as lung cancer.

The Blista pupils in the lab.

Blista pupils reconnoitre the world of microbiology

A second visit of the pupils was dedicated to microbiology. The opportunity of pouring agar-plates was given together with an an introduction on how organisms can be cultured using these plates. This was demonstrated to the pupils as they could compare how many microorganisms are present on washed and unwashed hands. The pupils were especially interested in preparing the plates because they already learned before how they are used but never had the chance to actually experience how they are made and used in practice. The last experiment dealt with safety aspects of microbiological work. The pupils should think of and got the opportunity to test different methods to sterilizing a liquid sample either by chemical or physical means for example using acids, bases or detergents. Afterwards a certain amount of the liquid was plated on LB-Agar plates and incubated over night at 30 °C in order to show which methods were successful. During this experiment the aspect of safety was discussed and the pupils became aware of the responsibilities scientists have. In a discussion at the end of their visit we recognized that their opinion regarding synthetic biology was more positive than we expected. Although they are aware that the danger of misuse exists still the possible advantages are predominant in their opinion. One girl told us she realized that she does not have to be afraid of bacteria since she watched a documentation dealing with the possibilities of biotechnology and Synthetic Biology.

We consider this day as a very successful one, but the end of that day does not mean the end of this cooperation.

The Blista pupils discover the world of microbiology in the iGEM lab.

Making movement audible

During the preparation of the experiments for the Blista pupils the question how science could be made visible for visually impaired people was a constant companion. Hence we brood on a possibility to translate bacterial movement into an acoustic signal. A possible advantage of this could be that additional information could be gained that have so far been overlooked. The transformation of movement into sound can be done using optical tweezers and dark field microscopy. The optical tweezers are used to keep the cell which movement is meant to be measured in the observed area. This is necessary because otherwise the cell would leave the observed area so quickly that no exact measurement would be possible. If only one LASER-beam is used to keep the cell in place, it can still move around this fixed point. This movement is recorded and if the cell’s displacement from its original orientation is plotted against time, a periodic function can be observed. The frequency of this function can then be interpreted as a sound.

Recorded sound of a single Bacillus subtilis cell.

Taking into account all that our work with the visually impaired pupils has shown us, we learned that our visual impressions can lead us to believe that certain results are very reliable when more doubt would be necessary. Furthermore they can lead to misinterpretations that are deducted from our everyday experience even when it might not be applicable.

Synthetic Biology boon or bane

As one part of the cooperation with BLISTA we organized and held 90 minutes of an interactive lecture. Our aim was the presentation of Synthetic Biology especially to promote iGEM and our project SURF. The pupils are in the 11th grade and have only basic knowledge about Synthetic Biology. Our idea was to give the students background information, do interactive group work and end with a debate about the advantages and disadvantages of Synthetic Biology based on recent issues in the public concerning Synthetic Biology.

The main idea was to get an idea about the knowledge and opinion of Synthetic Biology in the public. We had the idea for this cooperation with the BLISTA because we are doing lots of experiments where we cannot see what we are doing. We work with models to visualize molecules, atoms and whole pathways. The interesting point was to explain these things to visually handicapped people and talk and discuss with them about complex topics. During the seven month of our cooperation we asked ourselves how we can explain students who are not able to see facts that we cannot even see on our own. Beside this, we wondered if the students would have any concerns, ideas or questions about Synthetic Biology that we did not consider so far.

We started the lesson with a short presentation about Synthetic Biology in general, then we switched to iGEM and our project SURF. Afterwards we explained the pupils a controversial discussed issue that should serve as a base for the following debate. The issue was based on a recent publication that reports about genetic modified tiger mosquitos to fight the dengue fever (Subbaraman, N., Science snipes at Oxitex transgenic mosquito, Nature Biotechnology, 29, 2011). This mosquito is one of the vectors for the virus. Since there are no medications against dengue, the tiger mosquito is a huge threat for humans living in areas where the mosquito is settled. Due to the climate change this mosquito is spreading and so dengue does. Scientists have created a mosquito line via genomic integration which kills all descendants of a breeding if they are not treated with tetracyclin. Successful field trials have already been performed, although there are also several risks that have to be considered.

Before starting the debate we divided the pupils into two groups that should discuss the advantages and disadvantages of this field trial and Synthetic Biology in general. Each group had support by two experienced iGEM students for preparing the following debate. Afterwards one group was debating pro whereas the other was contra Synthetic Biology.

The pupils were very enthusiastic and there was a lot of discussion which was hard to moderate by the iGEM students. We also realized that the pupils had not enough background information and so they used from time to time stereotypes for their arguments (like it is done in talk shows). In general the topic of the debate was the ecological consequences of the GMO tiger mosquito and the ethical aspects of this issue as well as the dual use character. Nevertheless they also debated about topics like vitamin rice, insulin production, antibiotic development, gene therapy, usage of genetically modified organisms, bioweapons, long-term consequences and last but not least the dual use character in general. At this point we were astonished that the pupils have already got in contact to lots of different Synthetic Biology aspects.

In the end there was a vote for to get a general idea about their opinion. The pupils could choose between three points:

  1. Synthetic Biology has no risks and should be applied whenever there is a chance to
  2. Synthetic Biology brings new opportunities though the dual use should be kept in mind
  3. Synthetic Biology is a risk to humankind and should not be applied

Most of the pupils voted for choice 2 (14), a few were strictly against (3) and a few strictly pro (2) Synthetic Biology. Remarkably one pupil asked “Can I abstain from voting because I feel that I am not enough informed by the media and by the politicians though the iGEM Team changed it in a positive way today”. After this comment more than half of the class followed her opinion.

This shows that there is still a long way for Synthetic Biology to be well accepted in the public. iGEM is a good way to inform the public and we hope that we did our best. Afterwards the teachers of the class were very enthusiastic about the lecture and they asked us for further cooperation in the future. The iGEM Team Marburg agreed and we hope to have further interesting projects in collaboration with the BLISTA.

The discussion about synthetic biology with the Blista pupils.

Taking the eye out of science

During our cooperation with the BLISTA pupils we became aware of the problems they have to face during their everyday life. Since we are mostly visually focussed in our lifes it is obvious that also the field of research is under this focus. One current example is this year’s noble prize for chemistry that was awarded to three scientists who found a new method to visualize small structures. This illustrates that the paradigm true equals visualisable is still maintained even in a field of science which subject of research is not perceivable by our visual sense.

During the collaboration with BLISTA we realized that even our facilities are composed to suit these needs. One example to illustrate this is the usage of colored pipette tips. Even though the color of pipette tips do not have a color anymore we still stick to naming them by colors instead of size. Besides, when we planned a visit of the pupils in our laboratory we realized that our biology buildings are not clearly arranged and how difficult it is to find a certain room. During the lessons we spent in the BLISTA we were informed about many adaptions the visually impaired students developed in this visually focussed world. For example the color changes that are used to indicate pH changes can be transformed into sound. But what was even more interesting is that if you are looking for alternatives you even see possibilities where you would not expect them. The autoclave tape for example we always thought to deliver only visual information a blind pupil found out that the shape of the tape changes during autoclavation. This can be transferred to other fields of our research as well. This makes us feel the social injustice even more precarious as there are obviously possibilities even when we are not exactly looking for them. So what could be possible if we actually try to integrate them? We thought about this topic and during several meetings we arranged our laboratory for the needs for visually impaired people. We only needed the simplest methods to reach that aim. By marking different materials with altering surface properties that can be felt we gave them the opportunity to find on their own the things they need.

We created a barrier free laboratory by removing all triping hazards. The presentations were better adapted to the needs of the visually impaired pupils. We also prepared the scripts telling them what to do in braille. While we started with slides that contained way too much text we learned that it is better to explain the content and only use big schematic figures with high contrast. We learned that it is possible to integrate visually impaired people into science if we try. This is especially important as the effort we have to put in it does not only lead to more social justice but can also deliver a contribution to our research as those people that cannot or do not focus on their visual experience might find other information in methods that are already established. This was perfectly demonstrated by the pupils who discovered the difference between autoclaved and non-autoclaved tape. From a juristic point of view impaired people should be favored for jobs if they have the same abilities. But our observations show that this is not the case at the moment as the facilities do not allow them to reach the same level of ability. All these considerations also had an impact on the way we approached our project. For example instead of only looking at bacterial movement we transformed these movements into sound. We tried to not focus that much on the visual based methods as we found that they suggest a certainty in fields where more doubt would be better.