Friday 18 March 2011

'Enter the amateur!' - DIYbio @ Madlab

Photo: madlabuk

On Wednesday night I managed to get down to the first Manchester DIYbio event at Madlab. It was the kind of event I wouldn't usually have been instinctively drawn to, but after Lia at Madlab suggested I check it out and get my thoughts down I decided to get in there and see what the project was about. I was initially there on a whim and wasn't expecting to be hugely involved, but I came out of it with every intention of getting stuck into the project first-hand.

DIYBio "is an organization dedicated to making biology an accessible pursuit for citizen scientists, amateur biologists and biological engineers who value openness and safety". The movement covers a wealth of community-driven projects all over the world, spanning a wide range of disciplines, with a focus on bringing biology out of the lab and into the hands of people who wouldn't ordinarily have access to these fields.

Going into the event I was a little apprehensive that I'd be in a minority of techies in a large group of terribly knowledgeable biologist types. It was quite nice to find out that actually the group was comprised of more tech folks than scientists, and after chatting to a few people it quickly became clear there is a great range of practitioners involved, both from Team Digital and Team Science. :)

The overall plan is that any future project ideas will be open to the group for discussion and planning, but as a introductory project the organisers have come up with The Manchester Microbe Map: an investigation into the microbes on ATM machines all over the city. I think this is a great starting point: it's an interesting idea that will allow the group to establish who can do what, both in terms of who's willing get out there and get stuff done, and also who can bring particular skills to the table. My interest with this project is definitely the data visualisation end of things: once we have our data, what can we do with it digitally? I love the idea of getting this stuff mapped out and visualising things like physical factors, proximity to certain places of interest, time of day etc: there's a lot of factors we might consider, and it might even turn out we discover more factors once we get stuck into the data. The final piece is being shown (I think) at FutureEverything, so it would be great to be involved from the outset. Hopefully there'll be some data vis ninjas involved that I can learn from.

As part of the Microbe Map project involves swabbing for samples, we also ran through a highly entertaining demo on DNA extraction "tiki-style", using pineapple juice, washing up liquid, salt, and a sample of saliva. Bonus points to those who drank the shot afterwards ("in the name of science!"), I wasn't remotely man enough to try it.

DIYBio MCR looks like it could turn out to be hugely interesting anyway, there's a ton of talented people involved, and a massive scope to do, well, anything. Once again, the Madlab guys have allowed this to happen in a really great environment, and I couldn't be happier that Manchester is involved in another awesome project like this. The DIYBio meetups are once a month, hopefully this initial project will kickstart something brilliant. Looking forward to the next one!

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