I’m alive again.

Stare at my awesome new PCR machine. And tell me the darn thing isn’t cute. And ignore the carpet from the 70′s it’s sitting on.

It’s been… More than a year since I’ve uploaded anything to this blog. During that time only thing I’ve written long form were occasional tumblr posts dealing with what’s been happening in my life or some dry master plan to rule the universe through the power of science, typical student stuff.

I’ve stopped blogging on this site ever since I started working at Genspace NYC as one of its co-founders and one of the three people who actually did things in the lab instead of talking about biosafety. In retrospect I should have expected to spend a huge chunk of my life helping to plan and run a fully functioning molecular biology lab on shoestring budget, but I never really realized what kind of commitment it would be before it hit me in the face full force. During the heydays of doing projects in the lab I was spending about 12 hours per day running experiments, no weekends, no vacations. And that was while working full-time in other jobs too, since nothing at Genspace paid anything… Well, that’s not strictly true. I did earn enough here and there to get by if I didn’t have to worry about rent and supporting other people, but alas, that’s not the case for me.

Now that I look back at it I feel like I was dreaming for the past three or so years. I dreamt that I was contributing to some pioneering vision, each hour spent while almost blanking out from lack of sleep building toward something greater. Something that might even change the world into a bit more agreeable place. Now, the dream is over. It’s been over for the past half a year, it’s only that I lived in rather characteristically stubborn denial during that time, probably causing some level of annoyance to some of the other Genspacers.

I’ve resigned all my positions at the Genspace NYC lab. I’m not a board member, not an officer, and not a member of the space, though I still have to get all the books and other things I’ve built up in there out. And I think I made the right choice.

Stepping back from Genspace brought me some new perspective, some of which I’m still trying to get used to. Maybe I’ll write about some of the lessons once my head is completely cleared up… I’m still suffering from a bit of a shell shock.  Here’s a short, non-comprehensive list before I forget them later though.

  • DIYbio is not amateur biology
  • Issues of biosafety, a byproduct of initial DIYbio hype being tied to the hype about synthetic biology, completely poisoned good people and good initiatives
  • Despite the biosafety scare no constructive discussion on potential safety and other broader concerns about amateur genetic engineering ever took place. If it did I never heard about it in my three years of genetically engineering e.coli and plants in a warehouse in Brooklyn, some of them involving processes using toxic chemicals -disposed properly, of course
  • Involvement of FBI in reaching out to the DIYbio-amateur genetic engineering community was a double edged sword, in that it helped form a weird perception of hierarchy in some of the people who were in more direct contact with the FBI
  • One of the direct negative results of the biosafety scare and FBI involvement was creation of a group of amateurs whose sole responsibility, in a sense, is to tell other amateurs what to do. Coincidentally those people rarely have any projects under their belt, and are usually not very literate in lab safety practices due to utter lack of experience
  • Considering that no one really listens to above group of people anyway (except maybe reporters, grant organizations and the FBI, none of whom practices garage biohacking, to my knowledge) it’s only served to keep people who had running projects underground due to potential nagging from strangers with no valuable input
  • Despite my comments, I still give high marks to the FBI for deciding not to just tap everybody’s phone. It would have been a waste of their resources, and I view their assessment as very accurate
  • TED conference is the hip rich people’s leadership seminar camp, with some amazing thinkers and respectable individuals thrown in (unlike leadership seminar camps). Still so much better and inclusive than Davos. Perhaps even more effective
  • Maker Faires are what dreams are made of, and more places should have them
  • It’s incredibly easy to put together a minimal molecular biology lab. I just finished putting mine together outside Genspace for about a thousand dollars, including essential reagents. I also helped one of my students put his own together
  • Community lab model doesn’t work as is. Current model assumes new members to be incompetent, in a sense. At least not good enough to work in a ‘real lab.’ And current models drive managers of the community lab to have vested interest in keeping most of the members scientifically illiterate after a certain point, with a few outliers
  • Education should be done by educators. Scientists should provide the materials the educators can work with – reproducibility and clear, comprehensive documentation
  • There are more than a few high schools out there that covers genetic engineering with their students. There are a few that even covers synthetic biology
  • Despite relatively minimal PR, they tend to have worse access to equipment and reagents than most DIYbio/amateur genetic engineering labs, but have better results

I’m definitely missing a whole boatload of important points. I’ll get back to them later when it’s not seven AM with zero sleep last night.

Outside of reflecting on what I’ve been doing for the past three years of my life, I also got a chance to get in touch with and work with lots of interesting people around the city. It turns out that the DIYbio-NYC list I founded couple of years ago was moderator locked after a group vote (that later grew into Genspace) due to potential security issues, and interested people around the city did not have a place to converse about local going-ons with each other. So I just remedied that problem as well.

Here’s a message that went out to people last night:

 

 

Good news, everyone ;)

I’ve just turned off all the moderation settings on the diybio-nyc mailing list, and renamed it biohack-nyc@googlegroups.com 

The list was dead for a while what with everyone needing permission to post on it (which was in place by group decision at the time, what with biosafety scares and all). It was also true that there just weren’t that many people out there who were working on stuff as well. 

Well I’ve been talking to quite a few number of new yorkers out there and things are happening all over the city now. And there has to be a place for people to brainstorm and meet up with each other with a little local flavor. Keeping the list moderated like in the past would have been disservice to the community at large. 

Hopefully this can serve as one of the many springboards available in NYC to help aspiring biohackers learn their trade. 

Spread the word, join up yourself, be excellent to each other and have fun! 

biohack-nyc@googlegroups.com

https://groups.google.com/d/forum/biohack-nyc 

 

 

And yes, I changed the name from DIYBio-NYC to biohack-nyc because

1) as a screw-you to people who are still scared of the term hacker

2)I keep hearing things about the term/group DIYbio that makes me feel like it’s something I can’t agree with.

Hopefully this will begin to attract some brilliant minds that I know are out there to coming out of their genetic engineering closet. And maybe some activity will spur me to write  a whole lot more as a well. God knows I really need to.

edit: before I pass out, I want to go on the record as having said that, despite personal differences, almost everything I know about biology now I learned from Ellen Jorgensen and Oliver Medvedik from Genspace NYC. And I still recommend students and hobbyists go check out the Genspace NYC lab over at 33 Flatbush ave, because, quite frankly, there’s nothing else like it.  

9 thoughts on “I’m alive again.

  1. Insightful post – challenges in group dynamic, policy, practical “getting sh!t done” and commitments outside (and money!) Always turbulent factors in any pioneering collective effort. What you’ve done here is state your perspective on the precise nature of some of the problems/dangers/challenges – and this is to be highly commended when the prevailing culture is to make nice powerpoints explaining how everything is brilliant. Well done – this honest post is already helping to make things better.

    • Glad you think so. I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes since there are a lot of good devoted people out there, but I also felt I had to say something.

      I still think there’s a great future waiting for diybio/biohacking community. Hopefully people won’t discount the entire idea just because of a few niggles.

  2. Very interesting post. I have to say a lot of it echoes my own issues with the DIYbio banner, how it appears to operate and one of the reasons I stopped my involvement in it before it really started. It’s a shame in many ways, I wanted DIYbio to *be* amateur biology, to fill the same space that amateur astronomy fills, one which can make important observations of phenomena, collect data, analyse it and possibly even support the professional ecosystem in some manner.

    It also seems like a money game. I appreciate you can kit a lab out quite cheaply, but the disposable income to do molecular biology is still significant to many people, and this stratifies into a race of ‘who can spend the most on their kit’ – which I think happens in any hobby from photography – or anything that involves precision engineered kit.

    I lost count of the number of reporters who contacted me because of a couple of postings on DIYbio lists and an entry in my OpenWetWare bio. Public engagement is great and everything – and again, something you see in the astronomy community but seemed like a bit of ‘premature optimisation’ to me. DIYbio didn’t need to go out and prove to everyone what it was doing was safe, or assuage everyone’s concerns. It just needed to operate quietly with no issues for a decade or so, and then who would have been asking questions anyway?

    Anyway a very interesting read. Good luck with the future ventures.

  3. Any thoughts on getting access to rarer/more expensive equipment? I feel like one of the pros of non institutional science is you can bounce around more and try things out without having to worry about finishing that grant you got or publish a paper out of it, but this is hard when you don’t have the backing of a major company or research institution to request EM/FabLab time from. I’d love a place where I could get my hands on a refurbed electron microscope or high resolution 3D printer, but it seems places like genspace/biocurious/noisebridge have barely more than a few pcr machines and budget microscopes.

    • At this time getting access to fancier equipment is tough-certainly. You’ll have to have connections at a more professionally equipped laboratories, convince the local professor/assistant professor to let you have some runs here and there. It’s tough, but it’s worked for me.

      One problem with community lab as an institution is that you run the risk of having to appease the powers that be of the local community lab while having access to lower quality equipment and reagents- you’re spot on in that community labs at this time doesn’t provide too much in terms of equipment or even reliable safety protocols.

      I think amateur science is still getting started, and as the idea of pursuing publishable research outside normal academic confines take hold we’ll begin to see cheaper and reliable versions of more pricy and specialized scientific equipment, most of which, if you really look at them, aren’t THAT hard to hack together.

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