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5 Minutes With… Nadine Bongaerts from Science Matters.

Synthetic biology is increasingly being used to create new consumer products, which are now entering the market. The question is ‘how do we make sure society is ready for them?’

Nadine Bongaerts is about to finish her PhD in synthetic biology at the INSERM & the Center for Research and Interdisciplinarity in Paris and has worked on the communication of synthetic biology for almost nine years. She is a global faculty member for synthetic biology at Singularity University and co-founded science communication company Science Matters in 2011 with Eva Brinkman.

Here, Bio Market Insights’ Liz Gyekye, caught up with Nadine Bongaerts, co-founder of Science Matters.

Liz Gyekye (LG): What’s the story behind Science Matters?

Nadine Bongaerts (NB): After my participation in the international iGEM competition in 2010, I realised how fast synthetic biology developments were going, what this could mean for society and how few people knew about it. On the one hand, it worried me to see the potential of the field to make biofuels, bioplastics, healthier food and better medicine, for example, and on the other hand, the concern that some people showed over their trust of vaccines or genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Eva Brinkman and I felt that we had to bridge that gap and educate people on what is actually going on. We worked on various educative projects with science museums and high schools to explain and discuss what GMOs are, educated art students in synthetic biology and organised public science debates to better understand the public perception.

These experiences taught us a lot personally and we realised that these experiences would be very valuable for the development of any researcher and for society in general.

This is why Science Matter’s current mission is to empower scientists with the skills and opportunities to have effective dialogues with the public, patients, politicians and industry.

LG: What’s been the biggest challenge you face?

NB: The topic of communication and communicating to non-experts is not necessarily a priority for today’s scientist. It also does not feature in their education. There is an emphasis on how to communicate to other scientists in the same research field and to write scientific articles, but not necessarily how you explain science to let’s say your neighbour. While we see that ‘science communication’ is increasingly seen as important, it is sometimes also perceived as a waste of time that could be better spent on doing experiments.

In the end, what matters for your scientific career are your publications. However, we believe it is actually worth investing in these skills for important reasons. First of all, the world is becoming hyper specialised, so being able to translate what you know in words that another expert understands will help in interdisciplinary collaborations. Second, if you can’t make clear to others why your research is important, it might be difficult to get it funded. And finally, I think it’s a responsibility of scientists to share their knowledge, because society as a whole has invested in your research.

Synthetic biology is increasingly being used to create new consumer products, which are now entering the market. The question is ‘how do we make sure society is ready for them?’

LG: What missing skills should be taught?

NB: Essentially, it’s important to know how to put yourselves in the shoes of the people you speak to. The most effective form of communication that has been evolved through human evolution is story telling. Every time we talk to someone, we have to ask ourselves ‘what story do we tell?’ People can relate better to complex ideas when it’s translated into a story.

With our workshops we help scientists to build those skills so that they can bridge the gap between those based outside the laboratory.

LG: Do you believe in the bio-future?

NB: I would love to see a true bio-future, I think it will be the ultimate way of creating a sustainable future. But I also think that this future can only be built through strong interdisciplinary collaboration. Science is not enough to make change happen, we need each other, and again, this is why communication is important.

Nadine Bongaerts, co-founder of Science Matters, is a confirmed speaker at SynBio Markets (Berlin, 18-19 November 2019).

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