"Remarkable!" It's a word often heard in relation to the speed of discovery in the life sciences. Due to the speed of this knowledge generation, researchers often talk of the growing gaps in the communication of science to the public. A new educational Web site aims to tackle this very problem.
Launched in August 2003 at the University of British Columbia  (UBC), Bioteach  attempts to fill gaps in the public's exposure to science on two fronts, firstly by producing a database of freely available information and secondly by training science students to be better communicators.
"The primary purpose of [Bioteach] is to simply provide a focal point of freely accessible reference and educational resources that have a life science angle," says Dr. Dave Ng (pictured at left), founder of the site and leader of the Advanced Molecular Biology Laboratory ( AMBL ) at UBC. However, it's more than just an information portal, Ng explains. Bioteach also provides a creative outlet for students at the university, giving them the opportunity to produce "entertaining, humorous resources that would aid in educational content design." Bioteach has turned out to be a double-edged educational sword.
Reaching Out to the Public
"Life science these days is simply becoming too important, in not just the scientific circles, but also in the political, economic, societal, ethical, and even cultural arenas," says Ng. Initiatives such as biotech, he continues, are necessary to "get the general public talking about science."
At AMBL, Ng had already been making strides in providing educational resources to the public. "My lab currently has a vibrant outreach program that offers direct hands-on molecular genetic experiences to the general public and, in particular, to the high school community," says Ng. These programs include workshops on molecular biology techniques directed toward high school teachers, distributable kits that include instructions and equipment to carry out various experiments, and a weekly program to bring high school students to AMBL to do hands-on PCR and DNA sequencing.
Yet over the 5-year history of these high school outreach programs, Ng realized that although the programs were quite successful, they were plagued by geographical limitations: Only people who could drive to and from the AMBL site could participate. "I wanted to offer a resource databank that could be used by anyone, not limited by geography," recalls Ng. He tossed around several ideas for the project and eventually settled on creating a Web site. The next steps were to find funding from UBC for the design of it and search for willing and able science students to help him reach his goal.
Students Get Involved
The idea behind Bioteach turned out to have great appeal to a wide variety of students, and as more and more people offered to join the initiative, the team grew into various groups--three computer programmers, three editors, and three graphic designers. Not to mention dozens of writers to produce the educational material required.
Pictured is the August 2003 Bioteach launch team. Most are off to new pursuits, but Dave Ng (bottom, far right) is always recruiting new students to work on the site.
"I'd like to think that my official title was Chief Web Monkey," says Chris Grant, a recent graduate from UBC with both a computer and science background. He was in an immunology class when Dave Ng gave a short talk about Bioteach that piqued his interest. "I liked that Dr. Ng was volunteering his time to help out the general community. I could tell that he was passionate about getting the project off the ground and I wanted to help out with that," Grant recollects.
In Grant's opinion, information on biotechnology in general is "extremely polarized" and the material, more often than not, is very technical. To get around this problem, Bioteach provides "specific, accurate information without requiring that every reader have a Ph.D. in biochemistry, microbiology, or immunology," he says. Grant applied his computer skills to lay out a plan for a Web site, set up a schedule for its development, and ultimately "deliver a working Web site on time." In fact, Web sites that provide biotechnology-related information to the public on the level Grant describes are not that common in Canada. And the sites that do specialize in such a Web-based format, such as Genome BC's education centre , use professional writers and Web designers to develop content. The training that Bioteach offers students is therefore unique.
A second-year doctoral student at UBC, Clive Glover found himself enlisted as an editor for the project over lunch one day with Dave Ng. "I was responsible for editing 15 to 20 articles that were included on the site," says Glover, which "involved making sure that the article was accurate, intelligible, and easy to read, as well as suggesting figures that would make the article more understandable to the average reader."
Glover admits that it required a lot of reading and editing outside the lab--not only surrounding the submissions from writers, but also reading background information on the assigned topics. But the experience was worthwhile, in retrospect. "I learned a significant amount of new science that was required to edit some of the articles," says Glover, and "the new knowledge gained has become very useful in my everyday scientific life."
It's a thought echoed by Helmut Kae, a writer on the project and fellow Ph.D. student. Kae produced several articles for Bioteach, including one on how genomes are sequenced and a description of 'pharming' (animals that produce pharmaceuticals). "Bioteach taught me how to communicate my science without the use of jargon, which I think is the reason most people tend to tune out scientists when they drone on about their major accomplishments," comments Kae, who believes clear communication is an important academic tool. He hopes that students will take similar opportunities and learn to communicate. "To be able to teach concepts [through writing], in such a manner that everyone can understand them, is a valuable ability," he says, and an ability Kae feels he has learned partly through his time writing with Bioteach and partly through his academic studies.
A Double Benefit
When Bioteach was launched, Dave Ng and his diverse team of students had put together over 50 articles on current biotechnology topics, a journal of readings and reviews, and a wide collection of educational resource that, in keeping with the spirit of the project, are all freely accessible on the Web. In addition, all participants felt they had gained valuable and transferable communication skills.
"I had a fantastic experience working on Bioteach. I would definitely help out again," says Grant. "As an undergrad, Bioteach presents fantastic opportunities to develop team collaboration, editing, writing, and specific computer skills. If you happen to be a decent artist, Bioteach is a fantastic opportunity to build up your portfolio."
For students looking for similar opportunities, Glover says there are "many opportunities out there to do this," be it a university newspaper or an educational program. "When you start looking, the opportunities are there."
And in case you were wondering, Bioteach has not ended its quest to reach out to the public. Ng recommends that students "look out for Bioteach in the near future as a student society or club. Get involved by being part of the editing, graphic, or Web team, or simply submit something you feel has merit at the site." In doing so, you will not only hone your communication skills but also help to close the gap in the transfer of knowledge.
Interested students can contact Bioteach at firstname.lastname@example.org .