Taking synbio out of the lab: an interview with Britt Wray

static1.squarespace.comA recent interview about public engagement in synthetic biology with EUSynbioS and synthetic biology researcher Kostas Vavitsas.

Full interview above or text below:

A popular feature of recent EUSynbioS symposium was the Breakout Sessions, half-hour round table discussions on societal and regulatory issues of synthetic biology. One of the topics I was really looking forward to participate in was public engagement. Unfortunately, Britt Wray, who was supposed to chair it, had to cancel her participation. I thought it a pity, as Britt is very charismatic and can give valuable insights. So, trying to compensate, I met her in Copenhagen and asked her a few question about her and synthetic biology.

Question: How did you get engaged in synthetic biology? Could you describe in a few lines your synbio and public engagement involvement?

Britt Wray: I came to learn about synthetic biology through a somewhat surprising side door about 6 years ago. After I finished my biology degree, I moved to Montreal where I got wrapped up in a small but active bioart community and I took a related course at Concordia University. One day after class, my professor Tagny Duff emailed me the website of Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, a pioneering artist/designer in the synthetic biology landscape who was doing her Master’s at the Royal College of Art in London. I was very intrigued by her collaborations with researchers, which resulted in scenarios and objects questioning the future of synthetic biology and its operating frame at the human scale.

From there, I started researching as much as I could about synthetic biology, both on the natural scientific side and non-natural scientific side (in the “non-natural scientific” side I include the work of artists and designers who are involved in synthetic biology, social scientists and anthropologists, bioethicists, philosophers, legal scholars, and the rhetoric of watch dog organizations that criticize the field). I also started visiting DIYbio spaces and learning about the goals of various “tinkerers” in the synthetic biology space.

I later did my Master’s at OCAD University – an art and design institution in Toronto – where I created an 6-month installation as a part of my thesis at the Ontario Science Centre, accompanied by workshops. It engaged children in hands-on learning about about synthetic biology and biohacking. I spent that summer in Portland, Oregon, working with a documentary film company on a forthcoming feature film about synthetic biology. My public engagement and synthetic biology projects continued to unroll from there and brought me to work with a synbio startup, several public broadcasters, publishers and universities.

Q: There is a varying acceptance of synbio by the public. In your opinion, which synbio feature makes it more appealing, and which criticism is the most valid?

BW: I think one of the most appealing things about synthetic biology is that it creates new research platforms for scientists to understand biological systems. This of course creates fascinating possibilities for engineering new systems, but at its core, revolves around discovery.
Micropgraph of maize leaves by Fernán Federici (Creative Commons-BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Micropgraph of maize leaves by Fernán Federici (Creative Commons-BY-NC-ND 4.0)

In this exact same vein however, you’ll also find the criticism of synthetic biology that I find most valid. There is an enormous amount of pressure on synthetic biologists to translate their research to commercial applications. There’s a lot of hype and promise-making about the field, declaring we will be living in a brighter, more sustainable world bolstered by synthetic biology and a revolutionary new bio-based economy, without much delivery of that yet at the industrial scale. My issue is that the pressure to translate and aggressively sell the science through a consumer-friendly frame drowns out a lot of the interesting conversations about understanding biology – the foundational work – that synthetic biology is also enabling.

As a media producer and science writer, I understand that it it is not so easy to sell a story about foundational research as opposed to a story about a start-up that wants “anyone to design novel consumer plants without stepping into a lab,” for example. Actually, scratch that – it’s never easy to sell a story about foundational research. There’s always going to be a place for sky-high dreaming about far out sci-fi scenarios. I love doing that; I think many of us do. But we seem to often confuse the fora for doing that in. Sometimes it’s at a dinner party with friends. Sometimes it is in a boardroom. And sometimes it is on a national radio show where the distance between visions and reality is not always clear to the audience listening in (for example: about ideas for a synthetic biology-derived cell phone that might be created from grass cuttings – I heard this once).

As important as it is to imagine all the potentials of where synthetic biology might take us, it is also important to think about the alternatives. As one of my research subjects said, “I think one of the dangers of imagining the future of synbio is that we may be prevented from imagining the future where there is no synbio…We need to be free to imagine the future where synbio fizzles out, becomes totally unimportant and there is a massive loss of interest.” Why not be prepared for that side of the coin to drop? What else might synthetic biology afford us outside of its potential for a “new industrial revolution?” I think the answer will still be, lots.

Q: I was watching your TEDxOCAD talk titled “The lab is not hermetically sealed”. How deeply engraved in the public do you think is the idea of the lab as a sealed, out-of-bounds place?

BW: When I titled my TEDx talk “The lab is not hermetically sealed” and referred to the ideas of Bruno Latour in the talk – a renowned anthropologist/philosopher of science from whom I borrowed the phrase, I did not mean to employ it on a literal level. I meant to invoke the deeply ingrained idea that we seem to have that says science is somehow separate from society and all of its messy pressures, historical contingencies and influences. Science is a part of culture and visa versa; this feels easy enough to accept when it is stated plainly like that.

But as a non-scientist, I often feel like science and its processes of creating knowledge are black-boxed or contained to particular out-of-bounds expertise, which is reinforced by the special knowledge required for high-tech science. I am interested in the spaces where that mythological boundary between science and society – that conceptual hermetic seal – is most obviously porous, rearranged or erased. In synthetic biology, I find that artists, designers, DIY biologists and creative science communicators rearrange the lines of authority: who gets to do synthetic biology, who gets to represent it publicly and who gets to question it. I am interested in these places where the scientific and cultural efforts that are unique to synthetic biology are most obviously blurring and evolving.

Q: How do scientists benefit from public engagement? Do you have any advice on how (young) researchers can introduce their work to a wider audience?
Human Genome by Richard Riccardi / Flickr (Creative Commons-BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Human Genome by Richard Riccardi / Flickr (Creative Commons-BY-NC-ND 4.0)

BW: Fortunately, public engagement isn’t just about benefitting publics without scientific expertise. Scientists have much to benefit from public engagement as well. By being straight-forward about the values, intentions, and ideas that are wrapped up in their research, scientists might be able to cultivate meaningful relationships with members of the public, andeven engender public trust for them and their work. If they earn public confidence as transparent communicators and are ready to listen to others’ opinions as well as truly engage with them, that helps build a culture of respect that good science-society relations can sprout from. On a general level, scientists always benefit by increasing people’s understanding of the topics that they research, helping individuals cultivate more well-informed opinions about the science itself. This is not to say that more information means more public support for the science in question, but it does make for more balanced discussion and informed decision making.

Some science communication scholars have investigated what motivates scientists to engage with the public in the first place, and conversely, what might deter them from doing so. Often, their decisions are significantly influenced by what they think their colleagues will think of them. Scientists understandably strive to be seen as credible in the eyes of their peers, and there is an old idea kicking around in some disciplines that says that scientists who have the time to communicate publicly – let alone thoroughly engage with the public – do so because they are less talented at conducting real science itself. Then there’s the problem of perceived ego that can get tied up with it. As one of my own synthetic biologist subjects once said, “As a scientist you want to get your research out to a lot of people, yet you don’t want to be a pop idol because there are those scientists who become flashy like that and then none of their colleagues likes them. They oversell. It’s not that amazing what they do – they just really know how to sell it.” However, there is a big difference between engaging with the public and becoming flashy in some sort of vapid way. I would urge young scientists to find examples of other scientists who communicate their work publicly and engage with a wide range of stakeholders that they deeply respect, and focus on what good it has done for their careers as well as public engagement about science in society. There are lots of examples out there.

How might a young researcher try and get their research out to the public? For starters, here are some ideas:

explore “the evolving culture of science engagement” and get inspired by the many podcasts, theatre performances, comedy events, storytelling nights, experimental festivals, and more that are bringing science to fun, everyday experiences (eg: http://www.cultureofscienceengagement.net/landscape/)
create a blog, write well and get noticed (some scientists who blog moved up to write on the Scientific American blog network, for example) open a Twitter account or Facebook group that’s worth following to people who aren’t expert in your field (is it surprising? funny? entertaining? witty?)
create your own Youtube channel and populate it with intriguing videos or interviews you do with other scientists in the field
read some Science Communication and Public Engagement with Science scholarship (ex: Successful Science Communication: Telling It Like It Is edited by David J. Bennett, Richard C. Jennings)
take a science communication course (for example: http://www1.uwe.ac.uk/research/sciencecommunicationunit.aspx ; http://www1.uwe.ac.uk/research/sciencecommunicationunit/coursesandtraining/professionalandshortcourses/masterclass.aspx)
explore training programs in this area that organizations like the Wellcome Trust support (ex: http://www.wellcome.ac.uk/Funding/Public-engagement/Engagement-with-your-research/index.htm and http://www.wellcomedbt.org/science-communication-workshop)
talk to journalists, radio producers, artists, designers, and other communicators and creatives who take an interest in your science. How could you collaborate?… you never know what might come of it.

Q: How do you find science and synbio in Copenhagen or Europe in general as compared to other places you have been?

BW: It’s funny, at my university in Copenhagen, the synthetic biologists don’t often refer to what they do as synthetic biology when they are speaking day to day with each other. It is only the public facing messages where synthetic biology, as a term, becomes key in communicating their work (such as on their website or in the name of their research centre). I hardly came across this disparity when I was working with institutions or the start up that used to employ me in North America (with there still being differences between US and Canada). People there seem keener to use the (much debated) label of synthetic biology to describe what they do, even on the inside.

Although the Copenhagen synthetic biologists have a lot of industry partners, there seems to be a more flexible sense towards translating research into industrial applications than in other places. In the UK for example, that urge to translate feels more overt and is very explicit in the leadership council’s national synthetic biology strategy and language – inescapably so.

In Canada where I am from, we are definitely far behind Europe and the US in terms of the synthetic biology momentum. The first official synthetic biology centre in Canada is only just now getting ready to open at Concordia University in Montreal. Then again, a lot of synthetic biology happens behind the closed doors of various science departments at universities across the country, we just don’t have the same conceptualization and branding of the field in our institutions and funding schemes to the same extent…yet.