Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Erector Set of the 21st Century

We have reached a critical point for creation. A few hot spots bloom with innovation, but for the most part, our youth sits at home with Mario Kart and first person shooter games. Science education consists of baking soda and vinegar volcanoes, and kids lose interest in any science before they even realize what it is. Instead of embracing technology, we have started to fear the exciting advance we’re making. Newspapers write articles about “Bio-Hackers running Imageloose, threatening our livelihoods, our children” yet, a mentally disturbed man can buy an AK-47 and we can’t even pass an assault weapon ban. The public fears the wrong things entirely; most can’t even accomplish the bio-catastrophes they dread. We regulate and restrict things in the name of protection, yet we these little labs are more likely to make a glow-in-the dark gold fish than a bio-weapon.

We should be convincing kids to play with science, to foster innovation from an early age. The US fast falls behind other countries, but we can help change that. A 6 year old can extract DNA from a strawberry, a 10 year old can try their first experiment with algae. High school and college students should be encouraged and able to test their ideas, but they can’t even order a plasmid online. We need to make simple, and safe biology tools more open and available. We have a safety ranking system for biology, so why is Bio Safety Level 1, “suitable for work involving well-characterized agents not known to consistently cause disease in healthy adult humans, and of minimal potential hazard to laboratory personnel and the environment”, so restricted? Biotech companies don’t even want to deliver simple things like buffers to DIYBio labs. They’re too worried about getting sued.

These materials need to be widely available! Biotech stands poised in the same boom potential as tech and computers 20 years ago, but the difference lies in those with computers versus those with plasmids. We are going to fall behind and lose the potential for innovation if people cannot interact with Biotech. I envision a world where I can go to Amazon, go to the Bio category, and order some plasmids to run my experiment.

As a high school student looking to test an award winning project idea, I spent months looking for a lab to test my idea. After more than 100 emails, and 20 meetings, I found an internship, but I still couldn’t test my idea. What about all the other people that have biology ideas? I got inspired to open a Seattle Bio-Hackerspace, HiveBio, with my co-director Bergen McMurrary. We want to help make biology more accessible to the community. Because E. coli is fun! We need the legislation to change. In the 20s 30s, kids built crystal radios, in the 50s and 60s they built models, my parents played with Erector sets. DIYBiology can be the Erector set of today, but we have to change the legislation to help it and give the youth of today a creative outlet that will propel our society to a better world.Image

The Maker Movement

This is a repost of an entry I did for the Edlab group blog

The Maker Movement

Brighton 2012 Mini Maker Faire via Dan Lockton

Normal people can make cool stuff too. The Maker Movement is a growing movement of people deciding to build stuff, rather than buy it. Not necessarily to save money, but for the fun. It signifies a movement of backyards, garages, and weird hours. Some projects are serious, soon to make their way to the commercial market – like people who do DIY biology experiments in their garage; while others are pure whimsy. We’re talking giant talking giraffes, real life super hero suits, and fire breathing dragons. Yes – dragons! Maybe my childhood dream of having a pet unicorn is possible after all, as long as I don’t mind that it’s made of aluminum.

The Maker Movement has some general components:

  • It’s a movement of the young, not the old “when I was your age” bankers/lawyers/doctors that we often associate with success. Everyone from little kids to grad students. Us folk that aren’t stuck with normal working hours can spend more time after-school, in between classes, etc. on our cool projects. We’ve also grown up with the idea that we can make things. “Make Magazine” has a special “kids” section. Kids of all ages can sign up for Google and “Make Magazine’s” 30 day long, onlineMaker Camp. You can sign up for emails and receive cool talks, demos, and more information on how to be a Maker. But you can tailor it to your own time, because everything can be accessed after the talk “happened”. (I think this is a key component for those of us who think 12 noon is early in the morning. *Cough *Cough – too much “How I Met your Mother” last night.) Oh – and it’s free. You can even participate in “fieldtrips” through Google Hangout; a slightly cooler version than Skype from my completely objective third party opinion. Because I definitely did not broadcast myself air-guitaring to someone by accident. In school now, students of all ages can compete in robotics competitions. They work on a team to build a robot to the theme of that year’s competition.  This year the theme was basketball, and the teams designed robots to shoot hoops. That might be useful considering the last time I tried to play basketball I dropped the ball on my head.
  • It pulls from the community using resources of neighboring people. The Maker Movement focuses heavily on hackerspaces.  Hackerspaces are comprised of community centers, garages, and basements that people equip. Members pay for the cost of materials and then can use the equipment and expertise of the other makers there. At Noisebridge in San Francisco, they offer a wide array of classes throughout the day. They range from cooking classes, to German lessons, to a workshop on the Linux operating system. FamiLab in Orlando hosts a YoungMakers program, where they encourage and mentor students in making their dream projects. This program spawned the previously mentioned fire-breathing dragon.
  • It puts STEM to use in a tangible way, not the “will the plants grow if we water them with Pepsi” way you find in schools. Part of the definition of the Maker Movement is actually making things you can touch and use. Bill Gates just started out as a nerdy high-school student who made computer code in all of his spare time. And I’d say that the development of Microsoft is about as useful as things can get. General Electrics asked for the advice of DIY makers using Facebook. They want to see the designs of model airplanes and airports. Through “Make Magazine” you can buy an Arduino kit that allows you to start building computers. All at your own house.
  • It allows you to be creative, in a way you may have left behind in preschool with finger painting. Through Adafruit, you can buy kits and books to help teach yourself. Self-guided education is the education for the future, and allows you to use your creativity and adapt the curriculum to your interests. And it’s just fun. After all, everyone has a small part of them that wants a fire-breathing dragon in our garage. (Or maybe that’s just me.) At the World Maker Faire this coming September, “Make Magazine” advertises attractions in everything from fashion to art to food to technology.  Some of my favorite attraction descriptions are: “The Life Sized Mousetrap”, “Iconic Cupcake Cars”, and “The Nerdy Derby” – a derby race with cars built from Legos, wood, golf balls and more. But without rules.

So, who are these makers of the 21st century? The big names of the Make Movement consist of: Dale Dougherty, the founder of “Make Magazine”, a magazine with tons of cool DIY projects, “Radio Shack”, who just launched a new site for radio shack product DIYs, and “Adafruit Industries”, an online store for Makers. But, most Makers start out as kids and college student playing around with “fun stuff” in their garage. Then one day, they might discover something huge that allows them to invent the next iPod. The Maker Movement of socially challenged kids hitting it big changed into a movement of the people. The “makers” of the past were people like cobblers, dressmakers, bakers – people making out of necessity, not for glamour or fame. The Maker Movement has slowly moved into a movement for the people – the maker movement. Yes, you still have a chance at becoming a gazillionaire, but now people everywhere are making. From fashion bloggers dip-dyeing their own jeans, to a cash-strapped teenager fixing their own T.V, everyone “makes”.

So don’t feel the pressure to invent some amazing creation that speaks, cooks brownies, and can win jeopardy. Make just for the fun of not having to pay, for something to do on the weekend with your friends, or because you found a free DVD player on the street. We all can make things, so seize the opportunity, and have fun.


Help fund us! Click here

This is just a short post because there is more to come, but here is the link to our crowd-sourcing page! It’s been live for around 3 days, and we’ve already raised 25%. Any donations you’re willing to make, even $5 dollars helps. That’s the price of a latte! Do you like community science enough for a latte? A video will be coming soon, and we hope to get more pictures of the lab space up soon. With more money, we will be able to get to a safety level 1 lab! This means that we can work with Bacteria, because we’ll have a sink and non absorbent floors.

Note: This is not lethal bacteria. No bio-weapons will be made, or considered, or even thought of. Level 1 means we can work with materials “not known to consistently cause disease in healthy adult humans, and of minimal potential hazard to laboratory personnel and the environment” (CDC,1997) I repeat. Not known to cause to disease. There are many different versions of E. coli, the ones we would work with are more like legos of the bacteria world. You just add your brick (gene) to the E. coli brick.


So I’ve been talking a lot about Hackerspace on this blog, but I just realized I should upload this essay I wrote on them. This was part of my application for the Thiel Fellowship for the prompt “Tell us one thing about the world that you strongly believe is true, but that most people think is not true. If this belief shapes the way you live, tell us how.” As a member of the public school system, sometimes I marvel about the fact that I still like science. Lab’s turn into assembly lines where creativity is debilitating because of lack of materials and time. One of my hopes for Hackerspace like BioCurious, Genspace, and soon to be HiveBio, is that they can help get kids interested in science. People will be able to actually play around, because honestly, biotech is just awesome!

Ok, here goes the essay…

Our society leaves the talent of youth unharnessed. We place a higher emphasis on age than innovation. Some of the best ideas in our day and age stemmed from “kids” who still get excited with new ideas. We need to encourage innovation, giving more opportunities for young people to explore their ideas, rather than telling them to wait “until they’re older”.

Everyone has memories of being told, “because grown-ups know best”. That galled me as a 6-year-old, and it only festered with time.  Science fair projects based on friction seem fun for 11-year-olds, but no one’s supposed to even think about fission until long after college. When I started looking for lab prospects last summer, the dearth of opportunities for youth shocked me. Even in Seattle with a huge pool of biotech companies, only one summer biotech program existed for teens. One woman even told me, “You have a great idea, but you often seem to forget you’re only a high school student.” Science depends on new ideas competing for novelty, because being the second person to invent the iPod doesn’t really matter.

Clearly then, people with ideas need to be encouraged, no matter their age.  People under 21 have sparked some of the leading innovations in our time. Facebook stemmed from college fiddlings. Bill Gates cofounded Microsoft at 19, and started programming in middle school. Yet our society keeps youth waiting until years after college before they are supposed to pursue with ideas. Entrepreneurs I met while networking, like Cindy Wu of Microryza and Matthew Scholz of Immusoft helped inspire me to follow my dreams, encouraging me to apply for the Thiel Fellowship. But I’m one of few. For the rest, society must nurture innovation from a young age.

We need to encourage young people to share their ideas, and when they’re good enough, work hard to turn them into something. Furthermore, we need opportunities for young people to actually have access to new technology – to work with their ideas and experiment. Public School science mostly consists of a few pathetic kits, and uninterested teachers. It shows kids that science equals baking soda and vinegar or boring, outdated textbooks, just when they start to find their interest.

Hackerspaces like Noisebridge in San Francisco help to inspire innovation, but we need places all over the country.  Hackerspace, community spaces allowing for experimentation without formal background, exist for computer science, but are blaringly absent for Biology and other, less technology orientated sciences. By setting up places where people can work on their ideas without having it as their formal “work”, people start to innovate. These environments help to obviate the concept of failure, which is essential for innovation. People can test out their ideas without the threat of high-pressure venture capitalists breathing down their necks. And most importantly, people can start on their ideas right away, without trudging through a fifteen-year system of school, and entry-level jobs.

Youth have untapped potential to change the world – if only given a chance. I refuse to accept the fact that I can’t come up with ideas, or start a business because I’m “still a kid”. The enthusiasm of youth kindles innovation and fuels passion, but ideas aren’t considered without a degree and thirty years of age. We encourage every child to play sports, but we need scientists much more than one more NFL player.. The ideas around youth need to change, and more opportunities for them to explore their ideas need to be created. We need creativity safe havens for ideas to prosper and grow. Not just for them, but for the sake America’s place in the world.



With Regards,

Money, money, money

Why hello. Long time no see. 

I’ve been very busy. Emailing every single person that possibly could help fund the Hackerspace takes time you know. And I really mean every single person. I sent out over 200 emails regarding funding and the Hackerspace opening. I even considered emailing my plumber. I mean, he could donate his services to the lab right? Good samaritinism and all.

After a long search, we decided to use my friend Cindy Wu’s crowd funding website Microryza. (Which you should check out anyway. She and her co-founder Denny started it on the idea of crowd funding science research ideas. They got accepted into one of the most prestigious incubators, and are now in the bay area working on expanding. Not only is it an essential idea to fostering small projects and science innovation, but Cindy is just an amazing person.)

The Microryza project should be coming out int the next couple of weeks or so, in which instance I will update with a long witty post (To me at least), which can all be paraphrased into “Give us money!”

On a different note, I just found out I made the semi-finalist rounds in the Thiel Fellowship. I have to fill out some more questions, and I will be scheduling my phone interview soon. I still can’t believe it’s happening to me. I screamed in the vocal range of an angry jawa for around 2 minutes, and then re-read the email several times to make sure I wasn’t wrong. It’s such an amazing opportunity, and you should really read more about it sometime. I’m still not sure how I feel about the idea of dropping out of college, but Peter Thiel’s ideas on how big ideas can’t wait are so relevant to my life, and the DIY bio community in general.

With Regards,