Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
The term “DIY” often brings to mind patches sewn on denim jackets and zines collecting on shelves in Pegasus. At first look, a lab equipped with a 3D printer and growing bioluminescent algae seems like a far cry from this idea. Counter Culture Labs, however, embodies every bit of the DIY ethos. Located in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood, this organization is part of the larger Omni Commons, a group of 12 collectives that, according to its website, share the goal of “meeting human needs over private interests or corporate profit.” This grassroots collective strives to bring people from all backgrounds together so they can learn from and educate each other. It provides a space in which the group’s “citizen scientists” — those who study science but aren’t professional scientists — can collaborate on projects that range from genome engineering with CRISPR Cas9 to brewing beer, wine and mead. I talked with Patrik D’haeseleer, co-founder of Counter Culture Labs and Harvard University-trained computational biologist, about the goals of the community lab and misconceptions about DIY science.
The Daily Californian: What types of people are drawn to Counter Culture Labs?
Patrik D’haeseleer: It’s really all over the place. It’s the largest cross section of society that I’ve ever experienced. We get anywhere from the occasional 6-year-old dragging a parent around to a retired 60-year-old who worked in Silicon Valley all their life and now wants a new hobby. We also have PhD students. Since we’re in Oakland, we get people who are barely scraping by and are homeless to venture capitalists looking where to spend the next million on a biotech start-up.
DC: How do you inhibit the development of a hierarchy when you have a mix of people ranging from those with PhDs in chemistry and biology to others who have never pipetted before?
PD: It is a very much a peer-education program. And it is need-based education. We throw people into the deep end and say, “We need to make insulin. We’ll show you how to pipette and we’ll discuss what skills need to be learned to accomplish a project.” It’s rare to find someone without any skills to contribute.
DC: What are the roles of “citizen scientists” in the lab?
PD: There are different definitions of citizen science. There are some groups out there that just want your eyeballs — some federally funded (principal investigator) who gets a grant and then he gets his minions to collect data. Whereas in our lab, the citizens actually figure out the project and figure out what needs to be done to accomplish it. That is the difference.
We get anywhere from the occasional 6-year-old dragging a parent around to a retired 60-year-old who worked in Silicon Valley all their life and now wants a new hobby.
DC: How is Counter Culture Labs different from other community labs in the country like DIYBio?
PD: DIYBio is more of a movement than an actual organization. It’s very organically grown — it’s more so people who talk over the Internet. They are part of the maker movement. Compared to BioCurious (a Silicon Valley hackerspace that D’haeseleer was formerly a part of), we have a more environmentally conscious focus, and we do more bio art.
DC: What is bio art?
PD: It’s just being creative with biology. It could just be exploring how colorful bacteria is growing in different patterns. There’s also jewelry, (for which) I’ve been working with 3D printing of protein structures.
DC: What do (participants) hope to take away from this? A fun hobby or skills for a possible job in the future?
PD: Both. There are people who just want a hackerspace, and then we have people who are in between jobs and want to keep their skills sharp. Actually doing work in these community labs is a great way to try out an idea before you take it to a more traditional lab. The tradeoff is that most of us are doing this as a hobby. So, progress is often slower because we don’t have any deadlines.
DC: How do you deal with people questioning the motives of citizen scientists being for some political agenda?
PD: We have a wide range of people (with different political beliefs). One thing we do find is that we tend to do most things without a profit motive. Most of what we are doing is opening tech to everyone. Everything we do is open source, patent-free. For example, we have this vegan cheese project and we’ve been discussing how to not get it patented out from under us. We want to ensure that (the technology and process we’re using) is open for all the world. We might do a file and abandon, so it will remain in the database of the US Patent and Trademark Office (such that no corporations will be able to file their own, thus everyone can continue to use the technology if they want to).
DC: Many people are concerned with the safety of GMOs even in the hands of professional biologists, let alone DIY ones. However, the media appears to insinuate that DIY biologists may misuse gene-editing technology out of either malcontent or ignorance. Why do you think that is?
PD: I really think (gene-editing tech) is the technology of 21st century. I think that the more people who are familiar with the technology and can talk about the risks and benefits of it, the better. This is not something only for big companies and academia. We have some people who are initially scared when they find out we have E. coli in the lab. We have to explain that the E. coli is a lab strain and that it wouldn’t live very long outside of the lab. Genetic engineering can mean a lot of different things and has a lot of different uses.
DC: There has been a lot of discussion over the safety of GMO and whether or not they should be labeled…
PD: The label “GMO” is problematic. It’s a technology. I work in the field and I would never say I am pro-GMO: it’s like saying I am pro-electricity. To other people, I would try to explain what we’re trying to do. Like with our vegan cheese, I would say that (we do it) because the dairy industry produces (a huge amount of pollutants). That puts a different spin on it.
DC: What can citizen scientists offer that professional scientists can’t?
PD: It really is a fountain of creativity and an outlet for trying new ideas. We can go from having a new idea and then trying it out within a few days. It’s trial and error and playing around with an idea.
DC: So you have a few major projects the lab is working on, do you decide as a group or do a few individuals spearhead projects with their ideas?
PD: It can be either one. We have a lot of group lab projects. We have a number of projects done with a large group and then we have some people who go off and tinker on their own. It lends itself to group projects that are interdisciplinary because of the variety of backgrounds. Some people may use the term amateurs (for citizen scientists). But, they may actually be scientists — just not in biology. We’re actually on a novel, patent-free way of manufacturing insulin. The big pharmaceutical companies are able to charge high prices for insulin (because of patents). We want to develop the technology for generics manufacturers. The goal is not for people to make insulin at home. It’s a project that you can only really tackle if you don’t have a profit motive. This is something that captures the imagination of many of our members.