DIYbio NYC meeting: Apr. 15th

Okay, here we are, the fourth meeting of the diybio nyc group. As you can see the meeting was on the April 15th, almost a week ago, so I’m a little late in writing this post. The week had been a little crazy (I’ve been saying this a lot lately), so I really didn’t have the time to get around to it… It didn’t help that I had a bunch of class works that were already overdue and I had to spend the whole of Saturday and Sunday with bunch of UN/Google/open-source people related to the openeverything conference/bar-camp, which I will have to write about soon.

The April 15th meeting was a discussion meeting wit no lab session involved. It was held in a restaurant downtown called Veselka, an Eastern European restaurant serving some good pierogi (never had one before). While the food was good, the atmosphere wasn’t the most ideal to have a complex discussion though. It’s more of a family place, with lot of people coming and going, everyone talking at rather loud volume and etc. It was a refreshing change of pace from sometimes pretentious NYC food world… But I’m not really about to write a review on the restaurant am I?

The situation worsened due to the fact that a reporter from the New York Times Magazine was planning to show up. Some people in the group had experience with journalists (one of them is a published journalist actually), so we were afraid that something we say might be used out of context. There’s a lot of scaremongering out there in regards to the possible dangers of diybio, and it’s something we really have to avoid at all costs. And then the new members showed up. Total of three. All of them came from very unusual and interesting backgrounds but the venue and the circumstances weren’t very ideal for personal introduction between the old and the new members, especially owing to the fact that the ambient noise was to such an extent that we could not hear people from across the table. I would have loved to talk to them a bit more but didn’t really get much of a chance in between trying to hear what other people were talking about and trying to get actual work done in regards to the mission statement, identity and direction of the diybio nyc as a whole. One of them came from biotech background and I’ve been keeping in touch with him for a while now, through IM and twitter. The other person came from art background, working with a type of bio-art club/collective called the Grafting Parlour, which is kind of like the SymbioticA, pursuing the techniques of biotechnology for artistic pursuits. The last person to show up was from computer sciences background with interest in film making, who seemed a little surprised that she’s the only one with computer sciences background in the whole diybio nyc group (quite frankly that surprises me as well, considering that the whole concept of biohacking came along with the advent of computer sciences and biology’s increased dependence on variety of computerized techniques). I’m afraid that some of us (including myself) might have seemed a little distant to the new members of the group. I will have to try to remedy that somehow later on. DIYbio is about the spirit of openness in science and it would contradict the implicit founding spirit of the group to make new members feel out of place. I’m especially looking forward to talking more about the activities and purposes of the bio-art movement. I believe the whole concept of bio-art itself is replete with incredible possibilities that only art can dare to explore, though the group would have to find a compromise between ethical and scientific constraints and the spirit of exploratory arts… Even finding that fine line between arts and sciences sounds intriguing to me, to be honest.

The basic agenda of the meeting was on drafting the mission statement, establishing the main short term and long term objectives of the group, and finding a way to realize those goal within realistic budget and time constraints. Whenever we talk about doing some sort of project one problem gets in our way. Any biological project of even moderate complexity requires a dedicated lab space that’s not located within residential address. We might be able to pull it off within private residential setting like those people trying to build a bio-lab within their closet, but it won’t do for any long term experiments or groups, since there are just too many legal hoops and hurdles we’d need to workaround. And the last thing diybio as a whole needs in this age of terror-related scare-mongering is questionable legality and dubious safety measures. A member of our group experienced in operation of biotech laboratories is strongly pushing for strong safety protocols comparable to those applied to commercial labs, and I agree with her point. It might sound a little bothersome right now but it will go a long way toward the group being a fully pledged biological lab space.

The problem in obtaining a real lab-worthy space in the city is that it’s just too expensive. We would need a way to raise some funds, by ourselves or with cooperation with other educational institutions in the area like one of our members suggested. We can do a lot of those things if we decide to keep things hush hush and work under the table, but again the risks are just too great. In the nightmare scenario what we do wrong might effect the diybio movement as a whole, pushing the public opinion toward opposition. It’s the group’s implicit agreement that we can’t take that kind of risk at this very crucial time. Compared to finding the space, obtaining real lab equipment is a child’s play, and we’ve already made a lot of progress in that area thanks to one of our member’s generous input.

We need to find a path that would work toward to solving the space issue, and at the moment that happens to be working toward obtaining a legal status for the diybio nyc. It’s our collective belief that having an actual legal identity will help us toward raising funds, cooperating with existing lab spaces, and establishing supply relations with bio-companies we would need to contact in order to get perishable experiment resources. The ideal legal status for a group like diybio nyc would be a registered non-profit, whose tax-exempt status would afford the group with some negotiable leverage when it comes to financial negotiation and support. Drafting mission statement and by-laws for the group would be first step in establishing legal and ideological identity of the group.

All this sounds like a lot of financial and legal talks for a group supposedly dedicated to bringing science to the open. Experiments cost money and requires space, so it can’t really be helped for the moment. At least we do have an actual wet-lab session coming up this Tuesday. It’ll be an experiment to introduce GFP plasmid vector into K12 E.Coli chassis (the E.Coli chassis in this case is completely harmless to human beings. You can actually drink it and it’ll pose no threat to you. It’s a special, non-toxic strain of the E.Coli we all know and fear, that’s been used in laboratories for about a century, as well as variety of high school biology classes). It’ll be a first experiment that would actually allow us to observe and experience the process of introducing plasmid into a bacterial chassis with visible results, so saying that I’m excited about the prospect would be an understatement.

There’s been a lot of trials and tribulations for the group, and I’m sure that there will be more to come. But we are going somewhere with this, and it’s really good to see so many people interested in learning more about the techniques and science of biology outside the traditional medium.

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