BioCurious and the DIY Science Movement

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BioCurious: A Hackerspace for Biotech.  The Community Lab for Citizen Science project video thumbnail
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The notion of “DIY” has come a long way from the suburban home improvement projects once synonymous with the phrase. While it’s still pretty damn DIY to try and plumb your own sink, these days it’s also about exploring ideas on your own terms, whether it’s sinks or science.

Oh yes, there’s DIY science, and it is as awesome as it sounds. Two recent projects, OpenPCR and BioCurious, are proving that scientific research and knowledge aren’t just for university fellows and pharmaceutical companies anymore. Tito Jankowski, who’s involved with both projects, shared some of his thoughts with us about bringing DIY science to the masses and how easy it is to sample your own DNA. Support his project here.

With OpenPCR, you launched a project to build an open source machine capable of copying DNA. What do you see as the role of projects like yours in advancing scientific research at large?

Circuit boards and electrical components are getting cheaper and with rapid prototyping tools like the MakerBot (desktop 3D printer) and Ponoko (laser cutting as a service), I think we’ll start to see more custom tools created and shared by scientists and hobbyists themselves. On the flip side, lots of new users in biotech are non-professionals and projects like OpenPCR start to shape what consumer biotech will be.

BioCurious seems like the next logical step after the success of OpenPCR. You describe it as a “hackerspace for biotech” and “community lab for citizen science.” It’s an incredible idea — what was your inspiration for creating a community lab?

I love BioCurious because it brings in a social element to science. BioCurious began last year as a garage where there were lectures and hands on labs on the weekends. Students, parents, artists, writers, programmers, biologists and engineers took an interest and we saw amazing projects spring up out of those garage meetings including LavaAmp, DIYgenomics, and of course OpenPCR. Our inspiration for BioCurious is to create a place where people meet and dream, *and* have the tools, classes, and support to take the next step.

For many people, your projects are the first time they’ve ever been exposed to the open science community. I’m sure you get hit with a lot of questions about safety, legality, and accountability with respect to working with biotech. How do you respond to these concerns?

Biotech is already a big part of our lives today — medicine, food, fuel, and that’s accelerating. An investment today in the training of future PhD scientists may not see a return for a long time. New types of public engagement with the science and technologies that are shaping our world could have far more immediate impacts. In the short-term, there is a need to develop biosafety resources targeted specifically for amateurs that make it easier for individuals to follow best practices for the handling, storage and disposal of reagents and waste. We hope our efforts will inspire individuals to pursue careers in the life sciences, create new avenues for participation, and enable citizens to be better informed about the many opportunities and challenges posed by advancements in the life sciences. 

Given that most people don’t ever get to see scientific research in action, let alone participate in it, do you have any advice for newcomers to the open science movement? What’s a good first step for getting involved?

That’s a great question. Personally, my favorite first step to getting involved is to take a look at your own DNA — no microscope involved. Try it right now with liquid soap, salt, and rubbing alcohol. Get instructions here, written by Mac Cowell, the founder of DIYbio. When you do try it out, let me know what you think! (tito@biocurious.org).

(And yes, I will definitely be trying this!)

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