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From Imagination to Iteration: How Biodesign Can Link Today's Dreams to Tomorrow's Reality

It’s 2031. We have a deeper understanding of the connection between our brains and our stomachs and as a result the market is rife with nutritional products that can stabilize moods and influence behavior positively, to promote social equality. Rural communities now have access to a self-sustaining, inexpensive method of farming their own cultures of cyanobacteria that purify their water for the long term, solving one of the world’s greatest humanitarian and public health crises.

Nabria Jackson, Anique Parker, Keyanna Nurse. Photo credit: AULA Future

It’s 2031. We have a deeper understanding of the connection between our brains and our stomachs and as a result the market is rife with nutritional products that can stabilize moods and influence behavior positively, to promote social equality. Rural communities now have access to a self-sustaining, inexpensive method of farming their own cultures of cyanobacteria that purify their water for the long term, solving one of the world’s greatest humanitarian and public health crises.

How did we go from reimagining a better way to do things to making it a reality? The answer is Biodesign. And this version of the future is brought to you by two groups of 10th graders from Paul Robeson High School, who also participate in our free STEM education program for Philadelphia students, FirstHand.

Every year for the past five years, the Biodesign Challenge, culminating in a summit normally taking place in New York City but held virtually in 2020 and 2021, hosts a global competition bringing together teams of high school and college-level students from all over the world. The brief: to design a biotech product that could effectuate transformative change in fields ranging from medicine to architecture to fashion and food - to name just a few.

Initially the competition involved only university students, but after one all-girl team of high schoolers was allowed to compete on the same playing field and wowed the judges by winning three awards in 2019, a few more have since joined in subsequent years, going head to head against their older counterparts.

Enter the “Red Team” and “Blue Team,” our FirstHand contenders from Robeson High School, two teams who submitted final projects to the Biodesign challenge. The Red Team, for their part, was invited to present live to a panel of judges comprised of scientists, artists, academics and other industry leaders this past week, one of only 48 teams, in the hopes of taking home the coveted Glass Microbe.

In keeping with the rules of the contest, both teams spent the last six months paired with a scientist or artist to guide their projects from inception to completion. In our case, bio artists Genefer Baxter and Marco Locatelli, the duo behind Berlin-based Aula Future, who shepherded the Red Team and Blue Team respectively. If their names sound familiar, it’s because they are also former Science Center BioArtists-in-Residence. There to guide and support the students along every step of the way, were members of our FirstHand team: Program Manager, Adam Durant and Program Facilitator, Tiffany Copeland.

Each team’s journey to their final products is inspiring, but perhaps the most interesting part, is that they happened in markedly distinct ways: one is an example of the determination found in staying the course and refusing to be dissuaded from their ultimate goal, while the other is a story of a different kind of tenacity- the one that comes with experiencing setbacks, acknowledging when a current path is no longer working, changing directions and eventually reaching the type of breakthrough that rewards those who don’t give up.

Participating in the BioDesign Challenge was the perfect solution for FirstHand as we pivoted to virtual programming. The flexibility of remote learning allowed us to engage with our curriculum mentor partner AULA Labs in Berlin as well as many other scientists across the country and world that added their expertise to the project ideas. We are forever grateful for their time and attention to helping our students bring their ideas to life.

Adam Durant, Program Manager, FirstHand

From the beginning, the word “challenge” took on more than one meaning for both teams: neither had previous experience in Biodesign or iterative design and the bulk of the work, for the obvious reasons, occurred virtually through Zoom.

From their remote location in Berlin, Germany, dedicating their Friday nights due to the time difference, Baxter and Locatelli served as focal points for how the students conceptualized their final products, they connected them with different animators, and they facilitated materials for their respective team’s speculative designs.

“Participating in the BioDesign Challenge was the perfect solution for FirstHand as we pivoted to virtual programming. The flexibility of remote learning allowed us to engage with our curriculum mentor partner AULA Labs in Berlin as well as many other scientists across the country and world that added their expertise to the project ideas. We are forever grateful for their time and attention to helping our students bring their ideas to life," explains FirstHand Program Manager, Durant.

At one point, Adriana Mejia, microbiologist who was connected to FirstHand through the Global Community Biosummit conference and has mentored in various capacities for the program. She provided a microbiology perspective to the students designs and was especially inspiration to the Pro-Human group as she introduced them to the gut-brain axis.

Then, as restrictions began to ease in April, the students gradually made their way back into the FirstHand lab for a few in-person visits, where they could wrap up their projects, and utilize various tools to gather the images and storyboards that would eventually act as the visual component to their final presentation.

Keyanna Nurse, Anique Parker, Jaiden Morris and Nabria Jackson of the Red Team. Photo Credt: AULA Future

The Red Team (Advanced to Judging Round)

The Red Team, consisting of 15–16-year-olds, Keyanna Nurse, Anique Parker, Jaiden Morris and Nabria Jackson, and under the guidance of Baxter, presented, Pro-Human: a line of brownie, pancake and muffin mixes for children of varying ages, that contain psychobiotics. This mix of probiotic and prebiotic gut bacteria synthesizes positive neurotransmitters in the brain, promoting calming and happy feelings that put children at ease, making them prone to socializing with diverse student and peer groups, eventually becoming more tolerant and accepting adults compared to previous generations.

The inspiration for the Red Team’s project were, from the very beginning, the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others due to racial and social injustice. They view their biotech design, Pro-Human, as an answer to emotions such as fear, distrust, and stress, that lead to prejudice and discrimination against “others” or groups different from your own.

With a little guidance, the students were able to express their thoughts and passions in a constructive way. Working with them was a reminder of our human need for play, exploration, empathy, and community. What surprised us most though, is how connected each team is to their concept, and their refusal to compromise on their vision for the world.

Genefer Baxter, AULA Future

While the students cite improved communication skills with their teammates and the ability to understand a problem thoroughly in order to address it adequately as the most rewarding byproducts of this experience, they also learned an important lesson in research, preparation, and not taking shortcuts. “Before, we were good at research, but now we really had to read more, we couldn’t just scan through, we had to dissect an article,” observes Nabria Jackson.

Her teammate, Jaiden Morris agrees, “When we first started it was more of a broad topic. And as we got more specific, we learned new things, like the gut microbiome and how the gut and the brain are interacting with each other.” A field which, along with probiotics, the four classmates explain they knew very little about, beforehand.

Nabria continues, “They [Durant, Copeland, Baxter and Locatelli] were so understanding. If we couldn’t find something, they would help us with the research. We didn’t have to do the project on our own. Genefer especially helped us a lot, staying on us and making sure we were doing everything we needed to do. Even things we may not particularly need, she would make sure we had them just in case we needed them later on down the line.”

And it looks like that admiration goes both ways: “I’ve seen them grow over the last six months. They really stepped up their game and research skills. At first, they treated this like a regular school project, but over time I saw them take a lot of ownership and leadership for their own project. They were doing their own research, interviewing their parents, and sending me cool information. Even now they are in the lab doing a little experiment creating their own probiotic yogurt! They really harnessed this whole project and I want to give them kudos for sticking to their passion. They never went off course of what they wanted to do from the very beginning, which was exploring how they can make the world more equal and how they can bring about social equality. They inspired me to always stick to your passions and explore that no matter what. And I am so proud of them,” recalls Genefer Baxter.

The Blue Team

The Blue Team’s path to their speculative design, comprised of 15–16-year-olds Luel Solomon, Alyssa Perren, Erin Williams, Stephen Looney, and Jamar Jacobs, and under the guidance of Marco Locatelli, played out a bit differently as the iterative part felt at times frustrating.

In the end, despite some bumps in the roads, they submitted, Clean Water of Our Future as their final product to present at the Summit. The idea: while certain types of bacteria are already used predominantly in the treatment and sanitation of water, purification facilities have yet to take advantage of cyanobacteria. Cyanobacteria degrades biological waste but is fast growing, can be found in soil, absorbs a wide variety of heavy metals and would be genetically engineered as the nonprofit’s first product.

Luel Solomon, Alyssa Perren, Erin Williams, Stephen Looney, and Jamar Jacobs of the Blue Team. Photo Credit: AULA Future

The long term, sustainable strategy leverages these unique qualities, making it ideal for training residents of remote, rural areas to farm the microorganisms themselves- empowering them with their own method to access clean water and providing a solution for the leading cause of death and disease worldwide.

“When I first heard ‘Biodesign,’ I thought we would just be designing something. I have always wanted to invent. But then I realized we had to follow so many steps, learn new words, we had to learn about bacteria and all this new stuff. My mindset changed to, ‘oh, we really have to work hard,’” Erin reflects.

Her teammate Luel adds, “It was way harder than I expected. I learned there were a lot of steps and thought it would be much easier going in.”

Locatelli provides some further insights into the obstacles they encountered, together: “Even for me as the person facilitating the group, most of these themes were new. But we researched what’s being studied now in biology and biotechnology and then got all the input we could from the team and what they were passionate about, which was really cool for me. I usually tell them that I’m learning as much as they are and that’s one of the best parts of this program, to me personally. And I’m thankful to the students because it was also challenging for me considering the virtual environment, to understand their passions which themes they really wanted to explore. It’s hard to connect more deeply through a screen but I was very happy that we kept going and ended up with something that we felt proud of to send to the challenge. These are difficult topics, most of the time you have to do a lot of research and it’s hard for me to see how they are striking a balance when they already have a lot of other schoolwork, which makes it even more impressive. It’s really been a learning experience for all of us.”

The team persevered through three different versions before finalizing their design. “I’m most proud that we didn’t give up and kept going,” Erin reflects. “Even when we wanted to change projects, Marco didn’t put us down for it, he supported us through the whole way. FirstHand was just a really great experience, and it’s something I will always remember.”

Maybe that’s because Locatelli, along with Baxter, saw that the ability to identify when a current design isn’t working and change course as a result, is a sign of strength and maturity. “Not everyone would have the courage to drop some path that they’re going on, in the middle of the challenge with a deadline looming over them. They inspire Marco and I all the time just because of that decision to stick with it and to ultimately deliver something that they’re proud of that’s going to impact the world.”

Locatelli adds, “I’m especially in awe of their awareness to say, ‘look, I feel like we need to take a new direction. You, Marco helped us a little too much, we want to do a little more ourselves.’ And I tell you, I would’ve never had that mentality at their age!”

Baxter laughs, “We weren’t like that at 15 and 16 years old.”

In the end, the Blue Team is walking away from this chapter thankful for the impact their solution could make on the world, and the enjoyment they found from the process itself, being part of a team and visiting different locations to help inform their design. And even though they already got along well, in the end they formed an even closer bond.

Baxter and Locatelli share a similar sentiment: "Working on any prolonged project tends to impact you on a certain level. If you're doing things right, the concept consumes your life in the best way. This was the case working with our teens for the 2021 Biodesign Challenge. What impacted us most was the way that the kids related to the creative process, and it was an incredible feeling to find that the method of art-based research empowered them to make an actual impact on the world. With a little guidance, the students were able to express their thoughts and passions in a constructive way. Working with them was a reminder of our human need for play, exploration, empathy, and community. What surprised us most though, is how connected each team is to their concept, and their refusal to compromise on their vision for the world. They are not here to please us adults, they are here to uncover and reflect Truth."

The truth, for many of us, is that if we want a better tomorrow, it will require nothing less than the perseverance, empathy and imagination both teams displayed throughout this process. Whether or not their efforts will deliver the Glass Microbe to them remains to be seen; but they delivered big time for us, those who remain optimistic about the future this past week.