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Do scientists dream of synthetic sheep? Synthetic biology at the Fringe

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Richard Jephcote

24 February 2016

Jack Heal is a postdoctoral research assistant in the School of Chemistry, engaging with the public through stand-up.

It’s the first time Edinburgh Fringe Festival has seen science stand-up on the subject of synthetic biology. Jack Heal’s ‘Do Scientists Dream of Synthetic Sheep?’ show takes a comedic approach to genome engineering, de-extinction and more – with the crowd helping to shape its direction. 

The relaxed atmosphere of the early-evening nightclub led to discussions with the audience that could change the content of the show from day to day. As Jack found, such interruptions were actively encouraged: ‘By entering into discussion with people you get honest reactions to big concepts, and you often get asked questions that you would not otherwise have contemplated.

‘I was trying to interest the public in science, but I also came back feeling hyped about doing the research.’

The show considered questions from artificial life to Jurassic Park, and ran for 21 days. It was certainly a nerve-wracking experience for Jack – even when the audience was still in the single figures. But as the month continued, the audience grew and the show became more cohesive. 

Jack said: “Free shows encourage people to take risks in their choices of which shows to see. This spirit is perfect for science outreach events which have to try hard to avoid becoming ‘by scientists, for scientists’.”

He collaborated with University Bristol scientists, as well as the Public Engagement team and a small theatre company in London to create the show. Towards the end of the Fringe, Professor Dek Woolfson, Director of BrisSynBio, added his expertise to the discussions following the show each day.

Since returning from Edinburgh, Jack has performed the show around Bristol as well as at University College London and Gloucestershire College. He is keen to continue trying to combine stand-up comedy and science to different audiences.

Further information

You can commission Jack to perform through Speakezee

More information on Edinburgh Fringe Festival