From an insider’s perspective: About Freedom in Science and Scientific Curiosity

This week Johann Bauerfeind, scientific partner in the project iGEM shares his project experiences from his personal perspective. The iGEM competition ("international Genetically Engineered Machines") provides students from all over the world a framework to realize own projects in synthetic biology and supports students in following their scientific curiosity. In his guestnote, Johann emphasizes the importance of freedom for students and scientists, which is the base to freely develop innovative and also "hybrid" thinking in research:

After I finished my bachelor's degree, I reflected the last three years of studying and asked myself if these three years fulfilled my expectations. The answer was simple: "No."

Maybe it was caused by taking the advanced German course during my final high school year, but I had some naïve and idealistic expectations of studying science. For instance, I thought I would be able to study only what interests me and I would be doing fascinating science projects with motivated teachers. Following my own ideas and curiosity, would help me in analyzing problems from different perspectives.
In retrospect things were not the way, I expected them to be. In reality there is always only a limited budget for every student, study plans are mostly inflexible and science basics are usually shoveled into you until you have a scientific structure but lost your curiosity. Students are being pushed through their bachelor having no time for forming their own profile. Finally they are spit out with a bachelor's degree. Sayonara.
Realizing this made me really hesitant in starting a master program straight-away. However, I enrolled in the program, stopped to victimize myself and started looking for open people and for projects. And I quickly found them. Within a few months, I had three of my own projects, one at the Technische Universität Berlin, one at the Humboldt-Universität Berlin and one in my living room.

One of the projects, I was able to get involved in, is the iGEM competition, which may be called an island or oasis for curious students that are interested in spending their summer in the lab working on their own project in synthetic biology. After a few months of self-organized and self-funded research every team has the chance to go to Boston and present its work. I have followed the competition for already three years and had always wanted to participate. Now stressing for the happening, I was at the right time and place to initiate the first iGEM team from Berlin with the guidance of Prof. Budisa. In 2014, we set up the first interdisciplinary iGEM team in Berlin, consisting of students of different universities and backgrounds.

When we first started working on our science project, I received a lot of criticism about spending my time and energy for trying to involve and connect with artists, designers and creative persons. It was hard to explain to some science students why artists should be part of the project.

My friend Desiree, an artist herself and phD student in Bioarts, put it into really good words. She emphasized that scientists today are commonly very limited in their freedom. They often are not able to approach an issue freely and are restricted in their capabilities. In contrast, an artist is not limited to a project or an experiment in which a certain result is expected. An artist uses the tools, materials, and gadgets that science provides and uses them to create something new, unexpected, creative or is able to put things into a new context. A playfulness, which would make a scientist a little bit jealous, I think. Especially since scientists always have to deliver and explain the feasibility of their project in order to get funding and continue their research. The lack of scientific freedom is not only limited to bachelor and master students. I am pretty positive that a lot of PhD students, postdocs and maybe even professors are following the expectations of others and not their own.

To put it in a nutshell, as a student, I think, it is sometimes really important to reflect about your studies. What were your own expectations for yourself considering your studies? If you have the energy and the will to start something, don't mind institutional boundaries. Just start talking to people about it and eventually just do it. If you really want something, then you will find the right people that will help you in your endeavor.

- Johann Bauerfeind, project partner iGEM Berlin