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Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center

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Community & Leadership

It has been essential to renew and sustain a constructive community of synthetic biology practitioners who can recognize and engage with issues, needs, and opportunities beyond the bench, and who can effectively partner with experts in allied disciplines and activities, including the social sciences, humanities, and public policy.  We have also experienced that there are more needs and topics worthy of consideration and work than the resources of the Practices Thrust (or even an entire ERC) can meaningful explore and address, but there also a growing community of scholars and practitioners beyond Synberc involved in issues of Practice in emerging technology development with whom we can coordinate and collaborate.  Taken together, these two experiences led us to devote a fraction of the Practices budget to an activity whose combined goals are to scale the capacity of the synthetic biology community to lead on matters of practice beyond the bench, and to enable others to better interact with practicing synthetic biologists on topics of mutual need or interest. Megan Palmer has been leading Synberc’s work on both of these sub areas. This year we focused on launching one core program -  the Synthetic Biology Ledership Accelerator Program (SB LeAP) - but  continued to support successful initiatives piloted over the last two years.  We are also using these activities as a testbed to understand the role of community governance in responsible bio-innovation, and to develop key key reccomendations on how activities can be imrpoved and scaled more broadly.

Mukunda G. Indispensible: When Leaders Really Matter. Harvard Business Review Press. 2012. 

Mukunda, G. Great leaders don't need experience.Harv Bus Rev. 2012 Oct; 90(10):30-1. PMID: 23074862.


Synthetic Biology Slam Workshops
In collaboration with Patrick Boyle (Silver Lab), Synberc held a pre-SB5.0 forecasting and leadership workshop called the Synthetic Biology Slam on June 14, 2011. The Slam piloted a new format for rapid and inclusive creation of a roadmap for synthetic biology development. Over 25 presenters from across the international synthetic biology community ranging in career stage (undergrad through senior PI) and affiliation (academia, amateur, policy, industry, designer) shared their vision for synthetic biology and received feedback from an audience of >125 guests. The roadmap was presented as a poster at SB5.0. A second informal Slam was held the evening before the Synberc Fall 2011 retreat, with >40 community members participating. We are considering holding another Slam at the upcoming SB6.0 meeting in July 2012. The Slam format was used as a critical element of the design the LeAP program.


Synthetic Biology Practices Community Meetings
To reinvigorate and grow involvement in Practices from within the research community, Megan Palmer organized an ongoing series of community meetings focused on topics related to synthetic biology practices. The Synthetic Biology Practices Working Group met ~monthly in 2011/2012 in the Bay Area, convening a diverse community beyond Synberc across Academia, Industry, Amateur/DIY and interested others. This group drafted first versions of the ‘gaps’ list, gave feedback on Biosafety education, and contributed a response to the OSTP RFI on Building the Bioeconomy. The group also hosted informal dinner discussions with a number of outside speakers (e.g., Nita Farahany of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues; a panel discussion on Synthetic Biology’s role in the BioEconomy co-sponsored with the Siebel Scholars Foundation).

Critically, the working group helped envision and design the LeAP program. A residential workshop was discussed to be a more effective mechanism than monthly meetings for convening community members to focus on developing leadership skills and strategies for taking their interest in Practices into action within their long-term career planning. LeAP exists as the legacy of their efforts. However, we continue these local community meetings on an ad-hoc basis.


Synthetic Biology Leadership Accelerator Program (LeAP)
The Synthetic Biology Leadership Accelerator Program (LeAP) is aweeklong residential workshop in responsible biotechnology leadership for early-career practitioners.The inaugural LeAP workshop was held October 1-5th 2012 at Airlie Conference Center, DC. The Workshop was co-sponsored by the Sloan Foundation, the NSF, the BioBricks Foundation and the Woodrow Wilson Center. Curriculum was developed in partnership with a professional creative innovation and leadership facilitation team.

Inaugural LeAP Workshop, October 1-5, 2012: 20 rising leaders from the synthetic biology community were selected from over 100 applicants who submitted their top challenges and opportunities for how best to develop the field in the public interest. They came from a variety of organizations (university, industry, national labs, think tanks, government, amateur/DIY), disciplines (biosciences, engineering, social sciences, law), and career stages (senior grad students to new group leaders). The Workshop also invited 15 guest speakers from many facets of biotechnology development - including policy, economics, ethics, security, communications and law - to share their personal stories and challenges.

‘LeAPers’ spent an intense week working together develop strategic plans for responsibly advancing the field. They were guided through exercises designed to build core leadership skills and applied these skills to their plans. LeAP participants collaborated on plans that targeted several challenges facing the synthetic biology community. One group suggested a proposal for funding environmental risk research. Another worked on a strategy to reform undergraduate curricula. Other ideas included developing measurement standards for the efficacy and safety of bioproducts, starting an international synthetic biology society, and developing synthetic biology education through an international network of DIY community biotech labs. Participants co-authored twelve  ~3-page written versions of their strategic plans which were taken through a peer and expert review process. As of February 2013, we are collecting and editing revised plans. Exceptional plans can be found online at the LeAP website.

In exit surveys were conducted to assess impressions of the workshop and its impacts on participants’ skills and familiarity with responsible leadership. All participants rated the overall workshop as ‘extremely valuable’ (78%) or ‘very valuable’ (22%). Participants reported that LeAP improved their knowledge and skills in Strategic Planning: (17/19) Ethical Reasoning (16/19) Communications (17/19), Leveraging Networks (18/19) Stakeholder Engagement (18/19), Design Thinking (15/19) and Cross-disciplinary Collaboration (16/18). Participants felt LeAP improved their familiarity with many aspects of biotechnology development, including Policy (18/19), Economics (16/19) Safety & Security (17/19,), and Public Engagement: (17/19). All participants felt better motivated to take a leadership role in the field, while 17/19 felt better equipped. All participants reported an increased professional networks and having new ideas for engaging across organizations. LeAPers reported professional contacts as being one of the most valuable aspects of LeAP, especially the peer-peers contacts between participants working across sectors. Megan Palmer presented preliminary results of the LeAP program at the Hasting Center for Bioethics in November 2012, which will be summarized in a workshop report to be published online.

We are in discussions with the Sloan Foundation around co-sponsoring two more years of the LeAP program and are approaching other potential partners. The Biobricks Foundation has agreed to support participation of 4 LeAP participants at SB6 and we are considering organizing a half-day forum and advisory meeting as a satellite event.


Scholars of Practice 
The Scholars of Practice Program is designed to encourage new collaborative projects with independent researchers from allied disciplines who seek to develop projects that promote the safe and constructive growth of synthetic biology.  As a result, this year we were approached by two groups who have since submitted proposals for independent NSF funding of long-term collaborations with Practices: (i) Sam Evans at UC Berkeley worked with Megan Palmer and others to propose a 3-year project to use social science approaches to examine how biosafety and biosecurity considerations are constructed in synthetic biology, and in turn develop institutional designs to help advance best practices, and (ii) the Museum of Science in Boston approached Megan Palmer and Natalie Kuldell as advisors on a project they are leading to study public engagement with science; this project will pair scientists and museums across the country to develop exhibits and forums on the science and societal aspects of synthetic biology. Our hope is that these programs will create a body of examples of diverse modes of interdisciplinary engagement and help to scale and sustain our work beyond Synberc.