One of our undergraduate researchers, Lauren Ramilo, hosted a #CitSciChat on Twitter recently. These events were pioneered by Caren Cooper, and use a Q&A-style format to drive a fast-paced conversation among panelists and others. Lauren’s #CitSciChat delved into a new corner of citizen science, where participants are doing hands-on research about microbes, biotechnology, and more! Panelists from citizen science and DIYbio shared their thoughts on how their practices democratize science and provide safe and authentic research experiences.
Lab-based science has been restricted to universities and corporations, but that could soon be a thing of the past! Citizen science projects, like Where is Delftia?, are expanding the search of a commercially-useful microbe, involving students in sample collection, DNA isolation, and more! Community labs are also bringing science to the public, offering open lab spaces for anyone to use.
For more background, check out the SciStarter blog post that introduces Lauren’s #CitSciChat!
Here’s a recap of the conversation!
Dr. Carlos Goller @CarlosGoller NCSU Department of Biotechnology
Noah Riley @NoahRileyNC NCSU Alum
Tom Randall @TriDIYbio TriDIYbio
Patrik D’haeseleer @PatrikD Counter Culture Labs
Maria Chavez @IshyMaria BioCurious
Q1 Would you consider yourself a “citizen scientist” as described in Cronin’s paper? How do you practice scientific reflexivity?
Dr. Carlos Goller: I think the desire to learn and share curiosity and the co-creation of knowledge makes us all citizen scientists, if only we pause and reflect on how to keep in mind equity and social justice.
Patrik D’haeseleer: As for “Scientific reflexivity” – how about just calling it having a social awareness, or a social conscience? All of our community projects at @CountrCultrLabs have some aspect of being for the Common Good, because that is what people come for! Take away the profit motive, and people will come for the desire to learn and explore, and to contribute to causes they believe in. Projects like @OpenInsulin for example, or @realvegancheez
Q2 What barriers prevent #citsci projects and community labs from acquiring materials/equipment? Do you have suggestions for a solution?
Bonus: What could you (realistically) accomplish with unlimited resources and funding?
Maria Chavez: Cost is the largest barrier to finding equipment, a better way to nationally have a report for used equipment like the bay area’s BioLinkDepot would be a great model; reagents check out @reclone_org work on open source enzymes etc
Noah Riley: Cost seems to be the most prohibitive barrier – we have the people power and brain power, we just need to be able to pay for it! I’ve been inspired by mutual aid efforts of communities sharing resources with one another and wonder if that could be applied to #citsci projects
Patrik D’haeseleer: Software locks and registration keys can be pernicious roadblocks, even if you can get a hold of the fully functioning 2nd hand hardware. Good luck running that HPLC without paying $1000’s for a software license on HW that’s no longer supported anyway…
Tom Randall: Often those supplying materials/equipment will only sell to established institutions. Finding alternatives is important and usually these can be sourced from vendors who are willing to sell to community or individuals. I think legal issues are involved in selling only to established institutions.
Dr. Carlos Goller: maintenance costs of equipment and training are also barriers!
Q3 Does classroom or DIY science pose unnecessary risks for participants? How should we mitigate risk and ensure safety/accountability? Hopefully this isn’t too familiar: twitter.com/wsbtv/status/1…
Dr. Carlos Goller: I think we are also learning a lot now that courses went online and educators and companies designed home experiments. I think we will find a new interest in risk mitigation while thinking about access.
Patrik D’haeseleer: We take biosafety very seriously. Almost all community bio labs are Biosafety Level 1, and I just helped publish a biosafety manual for community labs. It is far, FAR easier to seriously hurt yourself in a woodworking or welding workshop than doing DIY science.
Noah Riley: Involving communities in developing safety plans would provide #CitizenScientists a more rounded understanding of potential risks and how to mitigate them. A safety risk for a member of the public may be entirely different than a safety risk for a lab scientist
Q4 Does “distributed biotechnology”, defined by Delfanti, welcome the opportunity for malicious misuse? Is this concern warranted? Paper: rb.gy/cmeudd
Patrik D’haeseleer: “Distributed Biotech” seems like such an odd concept. Do we call working on an Arduino project at your local makerspace “Distributed Electronics”? Teaching a “Hello World” programming 101 workshop at a library becomes “Distributed Computer Science”? As for malicious misuse – keep in mind that anything that can be done at a community lab can be done with far more expertise and resources, a strong profit motive, and far LESS visibility at a biotech startup as well.
Tom Randall: I don’t think there is much opportunity for malicious misuse. There is a pretty high bar for actually successfully accomplishing a biotechnology project.
Noah Riley: This is tricky! I don’t have a great answer on how to balance open science and preventing malicious use, but I recommend the mini-series Unnatural Selection on Netflix for an interesting look at the biohacking community
Q5 Do you view distributed biotechnology as a response to address the historic lack of transparency in industrial biotechnology?
Patrik D’haeseleer: The “Ivory Tower” is really a fairly recent concept in science. Darwin did some awesome experiments in his bathtub, showing that birds can bring seeds from island to island, even if they’re floating dead in the water for days. So in a sense what we’re doing is nothing new – just reclaiming a right that citizens and scientists past used to take for granted
Noah Riley: I definitely understand distributed biotechnology/biohackers’ discontent with industrial biotechnology. Anyone concerned about malicious intent of biohackers should be equally (if not more) concerned about profit-motivated industry
Tom Randall: No, I think it is more a response to the difficulty of getting actively involved in academic biotech research and the time/committment needed.
Q6 Do you practice or support the “democratization” of science? Bonus: How do you define democratized science?
Tom Randall: Yes, it is a good idea and one of the best ways to get sell the concept of DIYBio to the public.
Dr. Carlos Goller: I hope I am learning how to practice and support the democratization of science. There are still barriers, but access is becoming easier to provide in many cases!
Noah Riley: Yes, I support democratized science! Like in a true democracy, everyone should be able to “get in where they fit in” – conducting experiments, communicating results, considering ethics, etc. Not everyone has to sit at a lab bench
Patrik D’haeseleer: We are strong supporters of democratizing science. You should be allowed to do science as a hobby, or even just to have fun. Just like anyone is allowed to play with Arduinos, or use a computer as a hobby. Biology will be the dominant technology of the 21st century, and will likely change all our lives far more than they’ve ever been changed by computers. We need to make sure all citizens understand how these technologies work, and where the dangers are (or aren’t!)
Q7 Does your research aim to serve or include groups that have been marginalized in the scientific community? How have you achieved inclusivity/diversity?
Noah Riley: I saw amazing efforts at @NCSUBIT to purposefully include marginalized groups into their research. That has inspired me in my #PublicHealth journey to continue to center on the margins and pass the mic to voices that are often overlooked #CitSciChat
Dr. Carlos Goller: it is certainly an aim, but these past months have made me realize how much more I have to learn and relearn to begin to decolonize and de marginalize our efforts.
Patrik D’haeseleer: Diversity and inclusion is something that needs constant nurturing and attention. As an “old white dude” myself, I am proud that @CountrCultrLabs has had an unbroken tradition of female presidents so far. @CountrCultrLabs is currently also in the process of setting up a series of facilitated discussions on diversity & inclusion with our members and organizers, partially in response to some of the #BlackLivesMatter events. do think community labs in general do at least a somewhat better job at gender equality than the typical tech-oriented hackerspace. But we all have a long way to go to make sure our membership and leadership reflects the diversity of the community around us.
Q8 What educational outcomes does your project serve to achieve? How do you value **informal participant knowledge**?
Tom Randall: Participant knowledge is important for some projects since these individuals can really help with us communicating in a more approachable way to non-experts when needed.
Dr. Carlos Goller: I want participants to be driven by their curiosity and inspired to learn something. They can then teach us how to better motivate others. Supporting agency is my goal.
Noah Riley: My undergrad project sought to share the joy of research, microbiology, and Delftia with other students and the broader NC State community. Participants learned about gold-pooping bacteria and the more fun side of science that often isn’t available to everyone
Patrik D’haeseleer: We feel everyone has something to learn and something to teach. No matter what skills people bring to a project, we can probably fit them in, and have them share their skills with others.
Q9 How do participants benefit from the opportunity to participate in authentic research?
Noah Riley: I think engaging in research makes people proud of their contributions and increases their self-efficacy. The contributor for one project can be the leader for another! It’s all about encouraging people to dip their toes in and find out what works for them
Dr. Carlos Goller: I truly hope participants realize how we are all interconnected and can shape and contribute to the knowledge we share. Authentic to me means learning both about a system and ourselves.
Patrik D’haeseleer: I got into science because it is stimulating, it engages my creativity, and it allows me to contribute to issues important to our society and people’s lives. Those are the same things that draw other participants to our projects, “professional” scientists or not. More pragmatically, being part of complex multidisciplinary research project at a community lab is also a useful resume item. Requires team work, being proactive, and learning advanced skills in a peer-to-peer settings. We write lots of recommendation letters too.
Q10 Do you have a “success story” you would like to share? What are best practices for involving citizen scientists in #biotech and #microbiology?
Dr. Carlos Goller: Flexibility and curiosity. Success stories are the neat projects students have come up with to include more people in the discovery process. They are not my stories but their ideas and efforts to share curiosity and discovery!
Noah Riley: I’d say @delftia is a pretty good success story. Flexibility, feedback, and willingness to try new things (and fail) are key to successful projects in #biotech #microbiology and any other #CitizenScience project!
Tom Randall: One of my aims is to publish independent research in peer reviewed journals. An example is a paper that was published earlier this year doi: 10.1128/MRA.01009-19