The first encounter

This past Monday was the first meet-up date for the diy-bio nyc… I was thinking of writing a little post on the meet-up from the day one, but the papers kept rolling in and I had to put it off for a day or two. I won’t be naming any names in this post for fear of possibly breaching someone else’s privacy (my name’s Sung won Lim, by the way).

The plan for the meet-up was a little shaky at first. We were planning to use the American Museum of Natural History as the location of the first DIY-biology meetup in the history of the New York City (as far as I know). It would have been really epic if we could make it happen (I’m still really sorry that it didn’t happen). Alas, due to the policy change at the museum we were faced with last minute location change. I had to keep checking the mailing list on my phone’s web browser to get some updated info on the place and time for the meet-up, and for a moment there I thought the whole thing would be scrapped. Fortunately most of the people on the diybio-nyc mailing list came through and we met at a cafe on the 75th street which wasn’t very far away from the AMNH.

Out of the eight people on the diybio-nyc mailing list four people showed up, which really isn’t so bad when you think about it. I arrived at the cafe about 10 minutes from six, and found two members already seated and busy chatting away on some biotech topic. Bit of introduction ensued and we were soon joined by another, making it four.

The composition of the group showed some biotech bias as expected. One of the members is pursuing a degree in biochemistry with lab experience, and the other already went through the courseworks for advanced degrees and is currently working in a related field. I on the other hand, is a physics major whose biology education stopped at around high school, and the last person was a writer teaching at a local high school (with same degree of biology education as me). This was something of a relief for me since I was worried on the prospect of bunch of people with no lab bench experience sitting together trying to figure out what to do. And since we have a real writer amongst us, I won’t have to be the official blogger of the group 🙂

Since this was a first meeting we didn’t really discuss anything too technical. The meeting generally revolved around personal introduction, reasons for our interest in diy/synthetic biology and managerial issues. For people meeting each other for the first time in their lived with scarcely any introduction on or offline, the atmosphere was very friendly and amicable. It’s the kind of group that you can bring your friends to, and the diverse background of each individual members definitely helps to foster that certain mood.

We managed to set up some priorities. We listed a few issues that might get in the way of forming a fullscale diy-bio operation, and it inevitably boiled down to a few very specific things.

Workspace: Lab needs space. We might be able to manage with meeting up in a member’s home (which is what we’re thinking of doing for a while) but once we get to doing things with E.Coli that’s not really an option due to smells, possible contamination, distractions, and etc etc. We need a dedicated hackerspace like what the NYCresistor has with running water and fridge. Which leads us to the second issue…

Money: The real estate in and around NYC can get ridiculously expensive. Since we’ll be gathering at the lab in afterhours stocked with lab materials and equipments, we need to give a bit of consideration for environment as well. I’m not even going to begin with the actual cost of materials/utilities/fees that will be needed, all of which will only increase as the time goes on and we decide to do bigger things, like going on the iGEM. Since we already have two members somewhat connected to existing biotech establishments we have it a little better than some other groups in terms of obtaining lab materials. One solution at the moment is to collect bits of monthly fee from the members of the group ($10 per month as of this writing), but that won’t be able to make up for half of what we really need (the mailing list has 8 members). So right now, we need some sort of heavy weight backing that ranges from preferential tax breaks to lab equipment/materials support. Which leads to…

Mission Statement/Goal: It might sound silly (I’m still not entirely convinced it doesn’t), but we need it. With a proper mission statement and clear goal, we are thinking of possibly turning the diy-bio nyc into a full-pledged nonprofit organization for educational outreach and techno-evangelism (yeah, we need to work on how to write it better. Thank god we have a writer). Doing so will allow us some flexibility in obtaining labspace and materials since any organization/individual who contribute to the diy-bio nyc efforts can make it a tax write-off. Not to mention having a clearly defined goal helps people to focus their efforts instead of running around all over the place. I was also thinking of possibly working with one or more of the universities in the area (there’s a lot of them), but according to those in the know that can get dangerous. Lot of colleges treat IP like cashcows (which isn’t too far from the truth) which might get in the way of the opensource spirit of the diy group. We’ll need to do some planning on that front.

I think above three points apply equally well to any other possible diy-bio group, regardless of location. I am beginning to think that we need a reliable tutorial on how to set up a decent lab-worthy group that explains the whole thing in terms of laws and economics involved. I am also planning on using high school level biotechnology class syllabus to set up a mini courseware for introductory diy-bio stuff, so we don’t spend too much time explaining stuff during the real project sessions. If I can make it work, maybe diy-bio nyc can work in conjunction with local high schools which would sidestep the IP problem we might encounter in partnership with universities. I’ll see how it turns out.

All in all, it was a very meaningful meeting. I’m literally getting an adrenalin rush from all the excitement. I’ll report more as the group moves along.

If you have any questions regarding the membership or the meeting location of the group (we are actively recruiting!) feel free to email me or leave a comment.

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