Maker Pro is out! Eri Gentry and I wrote a chapter for Maker Pro called “Are You BioCurious?”, sharing perspectives on BioCurious, OpenPCR, and life. Other awesome contributors like bunnie Huang, Mitch Altman, and others. Also proud of my dad Theodore Jankowski for painting an illustration for the book http://jankowskiandbuck.com. And thank you to my friends who guided and reviewed my writing!
The Maker Pro book is written by 17 Makers, and you can order the Maker Pro book at Amazon now.
Are You BioCurious?
Written by Eri Gentry and Tito Jankowski
Biotech doesn’t have to be limited to labs anymore. There’s cool hardware and low cost hackerspaces springing up and being used by beginners and scientists. With this influx comes new ideas and new applications.
DIYbio, Do-It-Yourself biology, takes some unpacking. Telling people about “hack- ing biology” can evoke a range of emotions: from disbelief and amazement to questions about personal safety and national security! Some wonder what sorts of miscreants would practice science in their homes (aka their dark, dingy basements) and some want to get their kids involved ASAP.
What a strange, new world, this DIYbio! Literally, it is part DIY and part biology (also: hardware, software, community, and policy-but we’ll get into that later). The people involved in this space sometimes self-identify as scientist, but might be better known in their civilian lives as artist, engineer, high school student, high school teacher…maker-you name it!
When most of us think scientist, we reasonably draft images of white-coated ladies and gents in glasses working in sterile environments: the lab. This lab would likely be in a university or industry setting, with serious scientists methodically designing experiments that could change the world, or at least help us understand it.
The old concept of scientist works but is a misconception. It’s what happens when science isn’t a part of our everyday lives. We can become so far removed that we lose touch with our inner scientists. We’ve heard it before with art: ask any classroom of six-year-olds who likes art, who can draw, who’s an artist. Everyone raises their hands! Try that with a room full of post-educational-system adults and how many dare to put their hands up? The same is true with science. Take a moment and think back to an early memory with science. What was cool and exciting about it?
DIYbio is all about making those awesome parts of scientific discovery available to people. Call it Open Science, Democratization of Science, DIYbio… whatever you will, it starts with a mindset: believing that science isn’t constrained to institutions. And, like with many movements of today, DIYbio started with a community.
DIYbio was founded by Mackenzie Cowell and Jason Bobe in 2008, first as a set of meetings in the geography around MIT and Harvard, then as an online network of people from all over the world, which numbers over 3700. In its early days, the makeup of the listserv was nearly half artists. When you have such a diverse group of people trying to communicate their ideas around science, you can either achieve chaos or watch as a sort of common language of science starts to evolve.
A big success factor of DIYbio is that it’s allowed anyone—from any sort of background, scientific or not—to get involved in the conversation. Someone with only a partially formed idea, say, for building an open source gene sequencer, can jump on the forum, ask for ideas, and (if it’s sticky) a sort of collaborative discovery begins.
“Is that an Arduino?” squeaks a blond fuzzball. It’s a little kid, wandering around Maker Faire with his dad. He peers inside the OpenPCR DNA Copy Machine and points at that blue board inside. “Yeah, it is. We’re using the Arduino to play with DNA!”
You’ve used an Arduino to make a blinking light, right? You sat at your computer, typed some stuff, and practiced not burning yourself with a soldering iron. We did the same thing to build OpenPCR. We sat at our computers. We typed a lot of code. We soldered a bunch of stuff together. Those same steps that built your blinking LED light got us to a PCR machine to copy DNA. Sure, it was more complicated, but fundamentally it’s the same type of work.
Hardware, physical “stuff” is a great way to get interested in biotech. DNA itself is invisible to the naked eye. Billions of DNA molecules fit in a drop of water the size of a lady bug. It’s hard to get excited about a drop of water. That’s where hardware tools come in. Hardware tools like OpenPCR make biotech tangible. You can hold an OpenPCR machine under one arm. You can put it in your backpack. If you come up to me at Maker Faire, and I’m holding an OpenPCR, I’ll hand it to you. Now you’re holding a DNA copy machine. That’s kind of cool! “Something something-something copies DNA something-something”, I’ll explain to you. And it’s in your hands! It’s kind of like holding a box of kittens. You’re standing there with it, and you kind of want to set it down, and you’re not really sure how to safely set it down without breaking anything.
Want the secret to learning to draw beautiful sketches? Take a coffee cup from the kitchen, and put it in front of you…upside down. The upside down part is the key. Because something magic happens when it’s turned upside down. When it’s upside down, your brain doesn’t see it as a coffee cup any more. The cup is just a bunch of blobs, shadows, and colors. Your hand takes over. On the paper appears a beautiful drawing of a cup.
If you leave it rightside up, your brain gets in the way. You end up thinking about all the coffee cups you’ve seen before (big mugs at Starbucks, dirty cups at diners, and that talking cup in Beauty and the Beast). Your lovely brain is leaping at the chance to capture the spirit and soul of the cup. To be or not to be, what is a coffee cup? All that thinking gets you a bland coffee cup drawing.
But when it’s upside down… beauty flows. OpenPCR is like that upside down coffee cup. By turning biotechnology up- side down, you can get a better grasp on it. By making it a open source kit that you can build at home it turns the cup upside down. There’s lots of devices trapped in labs right now, with a label on them that screams “don’t touch me!”. OpenPCR looks more like a toaster or a bird feeder than a fragile, expensive lab instrument. We designed it from scratch with $12,121 raised on Kickstarter. Maybe your mom has one, or your friend has one in her school locker, or maybe there’s a scientist using one on a submarine coasting around the bottom of the ocean. By bringing in beginners and new minds, we can really flip our understanding of biotech and refresh our preconceived notions. DIYbio, OpenPCR, BioCurious, and all other the wonderful things going on are about turning over the coffee cup. Forget anything you know about biology, science, and biotech. Come look at biotech with the eyes of a beginner.
BioCurious is a working laboratory, technical library, and meeting space where entrepreneurs and the merely curious can learn about biotechnology.
Think of it as the Minecraft philosophy of life.
If you haven’t played Minecraft, it’s kind of like playing with Legos on your computer. There are a few basic blocks, and with these blocks you can build anything. There are only a handful of basic blocks, such as water, dirt, and grass. But combining these blocks, miners built castles, slides, and even a working computer processor within the world of Minecraft. I think life is a lot the same as Minecraft. As people, we’re all made of a few emotional ingredients: passion, love, fears, and doubts. And we all become different people—artists, teachers, and scientists, family doctors, Uber drivers, and tax accountants. Everyone is built from a few “blocks” of emotions, just like the world of Minecraft is built. What’s cool about the world of biotech is, I think it’s kind of a new “block”. That is, you can integrate biotech into whatever you’re working on.
Are you a car fanatic? Drive to BioCurious and let’s talk about how to tweak your engine to use biofuels. Or dream together about a living paint that molts so every month you get a brand new shiny paint job on your car. Or maybe you’re a foodie. A slow cooked filet mignon and perfect poached eggs? Let’s be really meticulous about the temperature the food is cooked with Nomiku’s new sous-vide cooker. We all know how thrilling a full belly feels. Napa Valley wine and cheese lover? A group collaborating at BioCurious and Counter Culture Labs is working on making a vegan cheese engineered from the DNA level, no animals needed, except perhaps some DNA from the narwhal. And if you’re a computer programmer, stop on by because we want to make DNA the next big programming language. At BioCurious, we’re all getting together and being curious about biotech.
Simply put, BioCurious is a community of people like you who are curious and inquisitive. For everyone who visits, some aspect of biotechnology caught their attention, whether it’s cars, food, engineering, programming, or something else. The curious visit to see what all the commotion is about and end up staying.
We first started meeting in a garage at Eri Gentry’s garage. When the group got too big to fit, we went on Kickstarter and raised $35,000 to rent space for a real biotech lab. It’s like TechShop, for biology. Since opening in 2011, BioCurious has been lucky enough to be many amazing people pursuing their curiosity about biotech, whether they are brand new to biology or work professionally as a scientist.
When we started, our burning questions were all technical. Can we buy lab equipment with our minuscule budget? Can we make scientific discoveries with minimal resources? Is it even legal to open a community biotech lab? Yes, yes, and yes, we quickly learned. But as BioCurious has grown, it’s been clearer that there are many opportunities beyond the technical.
So what’s next? Community biotech labs are heating up. But it’s a mistake to measure the success of a community lab by the number of startup companies
created or the number of scientific papers published. I think there’s a much greater opportunity than simply re-creating a new university lab/startup incubator model. Today, the biggest opportunity for BioCurious is pushing beyond the technical and into social elements of science. Can we change who makes scientific discoveries? Can we expand the global conversations around new discoveries to include more groups? Can we increase the number of people who have set foot in a biotech lab?
There are community biotech labs starting all over the world. Soon there will be a community biotech lab in your town! (See http:/diybio.org/local/ for a full list of community labs worldwide). Maybe you’ve got something you’re passionate about, or maybe you’re still searching. Come check out what’s going on in the world of DIYbio, OpenPCR, and BioCurious!
About the Authors:
Eri Gentry is Cofounder and President of BioCurious, the world’s first hackerspace for biotech, and Research Manager at Institute for the Future, a futures think tank. In 2013, Eri was named a White House Champion of Change for Citizen Science and made the Techonomy Top Ten list by nudging out Additive Manufacturing.
Tito Jankowski is cocreator of OpenPCR, the DIY DNA copier, and cofounder of BioCurious, the world’s first hackerspace for biotech. Read more at his website.