Despite a vibrant maker culture, and one of the top biotech industries in the nation, Seattle has never had a strong DIYbio community — a loose movement of amateur and professional scientists, working on creative biology experiments.
But a group of DIY biologists is hoping to change that with SoundBio, a volunteer-run, nonprofit community lab opening in Seattle’s University District early this year. The lab will host DIYbio projects in its space, and run educational outreach programs around Washington state.
“The key things for me are having a space that allows people to tinker with biology,” Zach Mueller, a data scientist at Amazon Web Services and one of SoundBio’s founders, told GeekWire. “And the other pillar of it is also the education outreach, specifically trying to reach communities that are traditionally underrepresented in science.”
SoundBio is currently setting up its lab, and moving in equipment donated by Seattle nonprofit Altius Institute for Biomedical Sciences. The lab plans on hosting an open house and welcome party soon to introduce the space to Seattle’s DIYbio and biotech communities.
Mueller said there are eight executive members helping with the launch, and the lab will take on more members after its public opening. Like most community labs, its members will range from complete newbies to professional scientists, who will work together on a variety of home grown biology experiments and projects.
SoundBio is currently supported by funding from a National Science Foundation grant awarded to Herbert Sauro, a University of Washington professor and a member of the nonprofit’s board of directors. Those funds will support science education and outreach efforts, and Mueller said the lab will also pursue other grants and philanthropy from the community to support its efforts.
Mueller and his fellow co-founders — science educator Regina Wu and synthetic biology researcher Michal Galdzicki — met while working on projects at HiveBio, another community lab in Seattle. They were all excited about DIYbio, but differences with HiveBio’s leadership led them to leave that lab and instead found their own.
Wu, who works in Fred Hutch’s Science Education Partnership, said she wants SoundBio to be engaged with the community, and proactive in reaching out to students and others who are interested in learning about science.
SoundBio has already committed to several educational outreach programs, including running science workshops throughout the school year at Seattle’s Sacajawea Elementary School, a program led by SoundBio volunteer Holly Sawyer. Mueller said they plan to expand that program to other schools next year, and that SoundBio is also acting as a sponsor at the Washington Homeschool Organization’s 2017 convention.
Aside from outreach, the lab is also focused on providing resources for amateur scientists of all ages to conduct their own experiments — or just learn about the basics of lab science — which Mueller said is a huge unmet need in the Seattle area.
“I think there’s a strong interest in this stuff, there’s just difficulty in figuring out how to get started and where to get started, and then also the community isn’t as coherent within the Seattle area as it could be,” Mueller said.
It would take incredible amount of money, time, and effort for someone to work on a DIY bio project solo. Legal and safety concerns, the cost of equipment, and knowing how to design and plan an experiment are hard to manage.
But a community lab can provide those resources to amateur scientists, and also helps build community around DIYbio, Mueller said. The lab will host various projects run by its members, and members are free to start their own projects or join existing groups, depending on how much knowledge they have and how much responsibility they want to take on.
One project, which is led by Mueller and predates SoundBio’s formation, is developing a ministat. It’s an instrument that keeps samples in controlled environments, and is an essential tool in biology labs. The professional model of this instrument is far too expensive for use in DIYbio settings, Mueller said, so the group hopes to develop a more affordable instrument for DIYbiologists to use.
Another other project, called Citizen Salmon and led by Galdzicki, is constructing a database of the origins of store-bought Salmon, using DNA testing to connect the fish to the rivers they were born in. Citizen Salmon presented their work so far in October at BioHack The Planet, a DIYbio conference in San Francisco.
The projects have been operating out of Mueller’s garage while the lab establishes its permanent space.
Galdzicki, a synthetic biology researcher at biotech startup Arzeda, also said the lab could be a place for those in Seattle’s biotech community to come together, and coudl even serve as a jumping off point for biotech entrepreneurs.
“Places like SoundBio can offer a starting point for people who may want to start company, but may not necessarily have a space or even have ideas lined up yet,” Galdzicki said. “I would certainly hope that a community laboratory like SoundBio would allow for people to meet each other and go off and do their own ventures as well.”
Its founders say SoundBio’s overarching goal is to foster science and scientific understanding among those that might be left out of the loop otherwise, particularly in the light of the anti-science sentiment that has been becoming more mainstream in the last few years.
“When you’re educated in some area of science you’re no longer fearful of things you don’t understand,” Mueller explains.