The elevator was broken the afternoon I visited Genspace, a community biology lab in downtown Brooklyn. So I climbed up tall concrete stairs to the seventh floor of an old bank, passing a hodgepodge of artist, architect, and ecological-fashion-design studios to get to the lab, which shares a kitchen with a handful of self-employed craftspeople.
Right outside, a presidential motorcade was driving down Flatbush Avenue. Obama was in town to visit a new technology-centric high school he’d given a shoutout to in the education section of his most recent State of the Union address.
Ellen Jorgensen, a PhD in cell and molecular biology and cofounder of Genspace, is critical of traditional teaching. “I think the educational system, especially in the sciences, is really broken,” Jorgenson says. “Part of the problem is there’s so much knowledge now.”
This means that students spend too much time cramming and not enough doing science in labs. And, as discoveries in biology and genetic engineering fly forward at breakneck speed, the gap between what scientists can do and what the public understands is growing. She points to the backlash against genetically modified foods, stem cell research, and cloning. “I don’t want this brave new world shut down out of ignorance and fear,” she says. “I want people to get involved with questioning it, but I want them to question it from a position of knowledge.”
Her solution? Let the people clone. In a three-session class in synthetic biology taught regularly at Genspace, students can roll up their sleeves (or, rather, throw a lab coat over them) and splice DNA. “Never clone alone… join the class and build a biosensor,” the website enthuses. Amateurs can combine genes that code for different phosphorescent proteins, for example, and watch them mix together like paints.
Jorgensen takes me into a dark room to watch the phosphorescence coming off of one recombined gene. The faint glow marks another success. About 150 students have come through the class so far.
One goal is getting students past the fear factor. “It’s very hard to get scared of something when you’ve done it side-by-side with your 14-year-old daughter in our lab,” Jorgenson says.
And, while she recognizes that bio-hack spaces like hers have limitations that major institutions and biotech companies don’t (the fickle elevator being one, the lack of readily available genetically-altered animals another), she does think weekend scientists can make real contributions to the brave new scientific world by building up synthetic biology’s shared knowledge base.
Genspace was the first biohack space when it opened three years ago. But there are now 14 globally, and they’ve partnered with officials at groups like the FBI to calm fears of biohazard. Jorgensen is confident major advances will come out of this new community. “There’s going to be something invented in one of these labs. You just can’t predict which lab it’s going to be and when it’s going to be. This is just getting started.”
A few minutes later, she gets a call on her cell and breaks the news to an arriving student about the broken elevator.