Building with Biology at The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia

July 26, 2016

by Jayatri Das

What would Benjamin Franklin think about synthetic biology? On July 9th, we held our Building with Biology event under the watchful eyes of his colossal statue in the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial at The Franklin Institute. I’d like to think that our favorite scientist and inventor would have loved the thoughtful conversations that took place throughout the day as visitors and scientist volunteers considered the applications of this emerging science.

With synthetic biology as a new area of focus for us, we were able to establish a new partnership with local biotech company BioBots as well as leverage existing relationships with the University of Pennsylvania, the Wistar Institute, and Dow Chemical to branch out to a new group of people. A particularly fruitful avenue for recruitment came through Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences Science Outreach Initiative, which maintains a standing list of graduate students interested in outreach. Our resulting group of volunteers represented a diverse range of scientific expertise: bioengineering, cancer biology, sustainable microbial control, and even dinosaurs (this volunteer became especially popular with some younger visitors!).

In the weeks leading up to the event, it was helpful for my staff and me to practice the activities on the museum floor to gain some experience with the kinds of conversations that would take place. This helped us assign volunteers to kit activities that tied into their work—for instance, Dow scientists with insight into business development facilitated the Tech Tokens activity, and Wistar scientists working with viral vectors for cancer research led VirEx Delivery. During volunteer trainings, we also discussed how to talk with visitors about their concerns with genetic engineering or the idea of “playing God” in ways that were honest, respectful, and productive. After the event, however, our volunteer scientists were impressed at how curious, thoughtful, and open-minded visitors were about discussing their values around synthetic biology.

Our visitors also appreciated the opportunity to engage in these conversations, as reflected in the evaluation surveys we collected. The hot summer weather helped drive a steady stream of visitors throughout the four hours of our event, and the BioBots 3D bioprinting workshops filled up quickly. Amusingly, our location in the Franklin Memorial meant that we also attracted some participants who were on a citywide scavenger hunt taking place that day or playing Pokemon Go on its launch weekend—the topic of synthetic biology proved interesting enough to distract them from their missions!

With a new group of enthusiastic volunteers and the positive response from our visitors, we’re looking forward to incorporating these activities into additional museum events like the Philadelphia Science Festival, Science After Hours for adults, community events, and more.

For questions about The Franklin Institute's Building with Biology event, please contact Jayatri Das at jdas@fi.edu.