Building with Biology at the Museum of Science in Boston

July 6, 2016

by Caroline Lowenthal, Museum of Science

The Museum of Science in Boston hosted its Building with Biology event on Sunday, June 26. It was open to all museum visitors, and included the hands-on activities from the kit, a few hands-on activities from the pilot year, a graffiti board, passports and tattoos, guest speakers, iGEM team presenters, and a table for a local synthetic biology company. That evening, we held the “Should We Engineer the Mosquito?” forum.

We had 40 scientist volunteers from MIT, Boston University, and Wellesley College running 11 hands-on activities and the graffiti board and sharing their iGEM projects. Each activity had two scientists running it, which let them take breaks and get lunch. Three iGEM teams presented their projects, using demos and models they built. Ginkgo Bioworks had a table with a DNA matching video game, scents made by yeast, and yeast plates that spelled Ginkgo. Students from Wellesley brought an interactive table they’d designed with the Tech Museum to explain their iGEM project. Through four hours of activities, over 400 visitors interacted with the scientists and activities. We mostly had families, with some tour groups and adults. Visitors and scientists really seemed to enjoy talking to each other.

As part of the evaluation cohort, we gathered data by using the passport, collecting responses from the graffiti board, and asking adult visitors and forum participants to complete a paper survey after their experience. The popularity of the temporary tattoos at the survey station definitely helped! Adults were able to fill out the survey while children were applying tattoos.

During the hands-on activities, we had four guest presentations. Francis Lee, from MIT’s Weiss Lab, talked about engineering genetic circuits for applications in cancer and tissue engineering. Jeff Nivala from Harvard Medical School shared a new paper about storing digital data in engineered bacteria. FBI Special Agent Joshua Canter talked about biosecurity and the FBI’s outreach to young scientists and members of the DIY Bio community. Lily Fitzgerald from Gingko Bioworks talked about her motivations to create sustainable solutions to global problems using biology.

Our event wrapped up with the “Should We Engineer the Mosquito?” forum. Most of our scientists stayed as planned during orientation, and about 65 visitors attended as well (about 55% of those registered). We suspect that Zika news drew people in. Andie Smidler from Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health presented on mosquito-borne diseases and mosquito engineering. Then participants discussed in small groups whether and how to engineer the mosquito to fight malaria. Each table had both scientists and members of the public. Many groups, but not all, supported the release of GE mosquitoes, with varied rationales. Andie was able to sit briefly with each table, answer their questions, and hear their views.

By the end of the forum, our staff and scientist volunteers were exhausted, but we were all pleased with how the event went. Scientists have been asking when and how they can be involved with opportunities like this again, which is a great sign!