I’m more of a finger painter and Instagrammer than I am a female Bill Nye, but I still decided to try to play scientist at Genspace.
Nonprofit organization Genspace was created by molecular biologist Ellen Jorgensen in 2010. As a Level One facility — meaning no bioweapons here — Genspace offers courses to the public and also an open space where members can work on their own projects.
Whether you’re a decades old biologist, a curious high schooler or a clueless reporter, Genspace is billed as an open space for all.
Usually the organization has a $100 monthly membership charge to utilize the space, but I was able to attend one of their open class nights. These nights are offered free to the public where anyone can come and see the facility and learn a lesson or two about biology.
Outside of the discrete doorway in Brooklyn, I ran into Tom Weingarten, a tech startup man who was a regular at Genspace. “I’m so excited this exists,” he said, grinning. “There aren’t many places like this.”
Genspace is the first fully government-compliant DIY biotech lab in the world.
We were led down a long hallway adorned with various cardboard cutouts which I was later told belonged to the building’s owner. When the elevator stopped on the top floor, I was met with a charming, organized clutter of preserve butterflies, microscopes and a Star Wars-themed tube projection toy.
Tom greeted his friend Justin, and Mike, a man whose major focus used to be electrical engineering, greeted us with a friendly wave. Ten people crowded around the large granite table top with scattered Stella Artois glasses filled with water.
Some of them were interested in biology, but a surprising amount of them were like me: art inclined. Two architects from Colombia just came out to the class because it sounded interesting. Marissa Mattys, an actor-writer-comedian powerhouse, loved to keep herself “well-rounded,” so when she heard of free biology lessons she jumped to the opportunity.
DIY biology is a growing movement. From Baltimore’s BUGSS to California’s BioCurious, people are encouraged to make bacteria glow, extract their DNA (safely, of course) and just have fun with science. For places where a set open community lab may not be present there are websites like DIYbio.org that provide forums to facilitate conversation and meetups between science enthusiasts.
As we waited for Ellen to instruct us on what we’d be working on today Mike, who came regularly to Genspace from New Jersey, eagerly told us about his love for the space.
“It’s nice because you can spend time with people of similar sentiment,” he said. “This is a consequence free environment. I can dip my oar and try to help advance what I can – the oar may be a limited metaphor.”
It was soon that we learned what we would be doing: finding out if we may have a higher immunity toward HIV/AIDS.
You know, nothing complex.
When terms like “CCR5” were thrown around I was completely lost. However, Ellen and the other experienced members of Genspace took their time to explain what we were doing in terms even the non-bio major could understand.
By swabbing the inside of our mouths, we were going to get DNA samples, boil and cool them until the strands separated, put those strands into a centrifuge, spin them around and then take a look.
It sounded a lot more complicated than it actually was. Basically, by looking at the strands we can see if our genes have a deletion that make the symptoms of HIV/AIDS take a little longer to show.
I nervously swabbed my cheek, not sure if my amateur cheek-swabbing-bio prowess would show. But it was surprisingly easy to follow. I moved the Q-tip from cheek to tube to pipette — think a long, more precious tear dropper — like a pro.
To my middle school science teachers: I get it now. Be proud.
Once everyone’s tubes were in the centrifuge they were sent to spin. The process would take hours, so Ellen said she would email us our results. In the meanwhile, we pitched in for beer and pizza, which is my favorite “community” activity of a community biolab.
Cramped in the small yet cozy kitchen, I mingled and watched others — strangers, experienced and not — ome together over this one experiment. While my inclinations still lean toward the arts I was pleased at how simple and fun it was to do a little non-consequential biology.
With enough practice, who knows; maybe I will be Bill Nye the Science Guy. One can only dream.