An internship with the SynBio 4 Schools project

PhD student Camilla Stanton spent a three month internship, from May to August 2018, working with OpenPlant to build resources and materials for the Synthetic Biology for Schools (SynBio4Schools) project, funded through the OpenPlant Fund scheme. In this blog post she describes the project and the work that she completed during her placement.


Synthetic biology brings together researchers from a broad range of backgrounds to solve biological problems through rational design. While synthetic biology is increasingly being taught in universities, it remains under-represented in the national curriculum and teaching resources for GCSE and A-Level students. The SynBio 4 Schools project aims to solve this problem by creating a comprehensive educational resource package that teaches the principles of plant synthetic biology through practicals and case studies.

 SynBio4Schools activites and write-ups on display at the OpenPlant Forum, Norwich, 2018

SynBio4Schools activites and write-ups on display at the OpenPlant Forum, Norwich, 2018

I got involved with the SynBio 4 Schools project through a 3-month industrial placement as part of my PhD. My role was to assess and identify what resources could be included and to begin compiling them. An obvious starting place was to explore the activities and demonstrations that researchers in Norwich and Cambridge had already developed and tested. While these resources are valuable on their own, bringing them together creates a set of interlinked resources that support one another, greatly increasing their reach and impact. It is also an exciting opportunity to get contemporary research into schools, helping inspire the next generation of biological engineers!

During my placement, I worked in collaboration with researchers to discuss ideas for how their research could be used in a teaching-style activity, whether that be an experiment, worksheet or craft-based. We also had discussions about what sort of supporting material might be useful, such as articles, interviews or case studies. It was a really enjoyable process as it gave the scientists a unique opportunity to think more creatively about their work, and I got to hear some really innovative ideas for teaching some quite complex concepts.

 Some of the 3D printed virus structures from Roger Castells-Graells'  OpenPant Fund Project .

Some of the 3D printed virus structures from Roger Castells-Graells' OpenPant Fund Project.

I ended up focussing on writing up three activities based on work carried out by Dr Paolo Bombelli (plant microbial fuel cells), Dr Nicola Patron (genetic circuits) and Roger Castells-Graells (virus structures), which I was lucky enough to showcase at the OpenPlant Forum. This gave me the chance to receive feedback from other researchers and educators about how the materials could be made more accessible for students and provide more support for teachers and technicians. These suggestions helped shape the basic write-up template, which now includes additional investigations, sources and links to other experiments. 

This was a hugely valuable experience for me - I got to explore new topics, meet people with exciting and original ideas and even got to try my hand at some design work! Although I’m now back doing my PhD, the SynBio 4 Schools project definitely doesn’t end there - we want as many people as possible to get involved.

Currently, there is a growing list of activities that cover a variety of topics from plant natural products to computational biology. But we want to showcase even more research from Norwich and Cambridge! If you have developed a resource that you would like to see included in the SynBio 4 Schools project, or you think your research could translate into an educational setting, please do get in touch! Email Colette.Matthewman@jic.ac.uk