The world’s first biotech lab in a public library celebrated its grand opening September 1 in the La Jolla-Riford Branch Library of the San Diego Public Library (SDPL). The Bio Lab is part of the library’s Life Science Collaboratory, which has hosted a variety of classes and talks from visiting scientists since it opened its doors in April. The Bio Lab, however, promises to take Collaboratory’s citizen science mission a step further.
Outfitted with used and donated equipment from local sources, the Bio Lab meets Basic Safety Level (BSL) 1 standards, the equivalent of a high school laboratory. It currently offers microscopes, centrifuges, DNA copying machines, electrophoresis gel boxes, a vortex mixer, and other basic molecular biology equipment, as well as access to the branch’s 3-D printer lab and a 50-person classroom. Drawing on San Diego’s thriving biotech community, the Collaboratory has assembled an enthusiastic volunteer staff to helps lead demos, lectures, workshops, and hands-on participation for users of all ages.
All-ages workshops are held monthly, as is a lecture aimed at adults. Workshops, offered by volunteers from the Wet Lab, a local citizen science facility, have included lessons in DNA extraction using a strawberry; lectures have covered topics such as the sensory system of sharks and rays, alternative energy sources, the intestinal parasites Giardia lamblia, and gene splicing.
The Wet Lab has been a critical partner, helping branch manager Shaun Briley set up the laboratory, creating the initial programming, and serving as its advisory board. The Collaboratory has also formed a partnership with the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, as well as local organizations Biomimicry San Diego and the San Diego Barcode of Life Initiative.
A BIOTECH COMMUNITY
Until recently, the Collaboratory was an unused storage room, piled floor to ceiling with broken furniture. Soon after arriving at La Jolla-Riford in July 2014, Briley cleaned it out and installed a Maker space with a couple of 3-D printers, but he had a more ambitious project in mind. San Diego is a community with deep roots in science and technology—along with Boston and San Francisco, it is one of the country’s major biotech hubs, and hosts more than 20 colleges and universities, including the University of California at San Diego (UCSD), a renowned research institution.
The region’s concentrated expertise, Briley thought, provided a perfect opportunity for programming. “As soon as you get here you realize…that there’s obviously a lot of knowledge,” he told LJ. “And at the same time there’s a lot of interest—people know that biotechnology is this massive revolution that’s going to affect all our lives in amazing ways, but they don’t quite know what it is…. So I wanted to make that connection between the knowledge that’s in this community and the general public.”
Briley himself has a strong interest in science. “I’m not a biologist, but it’s on my radar,” he said—his mother worked for a pharmaceutical company in the U.K.; his sister studied biochemistry at Cambridge; and his brother is a doctor at Oxford University’s teaching hospital. At a local lecture by Craig Venter, the first scientist to sequence the human genome, Briley was struck by the Venter Institute’s mobile laboratory that brings biotech activities to local schools.
While setting up the branch’s Maker space with the help of Uyen Tran, emerging technologies librarian at SDPL’s Central Library, Briley mentioned wanting to do something with biotech. A couple of years ago, Tran told him, she had been at San Diego’s Fab Lab—a nonprofit community design and fabrication facility based in San Diego’s Maker’s Quarter and the force behind SDPL’s 3-D printer lab—and met Wet Lab founder Cameron Clarke, a biologist “with a tiny lab tacked on the back of Fab Lab, who does algae research with a few other people.” The two had spoken about possibly putting together a biotechnology conference for the library, so Tran put Clarke in touch with Briley.
CITIZEN SCIENTISTS AND BIOHACKERS
Clarke’s Wet Lab is a biohacker space—a citizen science facility unaffiliated with a hospital or university, where serious amateurs are welcome. According to BioCurious, a community biotech lab in Sunnyvale, CA, a citizen scientist is “an amateur or non-professional scientist participating in scientific research. The goals of Citizen Science can include creating an open dialogue and collaboration between professional research and general public for the benefit of society. Research can often take place in a Makerspace or Hackerspace.” Noted as a growing trend in LJ’s coverage of the Library and Information Technology Association’s (LITA) Top Tech Trends panel in 2014, biohacking has spawned communities around the world. In addition to the Wet Lab, which focuses on algae and other microorganisms, public biotech labs in the area include Bio, Tech, and Beyond, a hacker space and economic hub for biotech and STEM in the city of Carlsbad. San Diego County also has a DIYbio meetup group but no organized physical space like its Los Angeles counterpart The Lab.
Working with Clarke, Briley was able to set up the Bio Lab relatively quickly and inexpensively. Equipment was donated by a local surplus company, with Salk Institute members helping source items on his wish list. Chemical-resistant tables were practically the only major pieces Briley had to purchase with library funds. “We’ve done it like libraries do everything,” he said. “We cobbled it together with begging and borrowing.”
Nor has he brought in any additional staff. The Life Science Collaboratory is entirely volunteer-run, with local scientists happily completing the city orientation and background check required of all library volunteers. The library has also started a meetup group advertised by flyers at UCSD to bring in volunteers.
Volunteer Callen Hyland, who has a PhD in molecular and cellular biology from Yale, became a Wet Lab member after attending a lecture it sponsored at the Central Library. Because she lived near the La Jolla-Riford branch, Hyland ended up working closely with Briley on the Bio Lab’s setup, organizing and testing everything to make sure his second-hand equipment worked—“I actually ended up 3-D printing some of the missing parts,” she told LJ.
Visitors to the Collaboratory have ranged from students at Muirlands Middle School and La Jolla High School, as well as a contingent of homeschoolers, to members of the scientific community and entrepreneurs. “We’re getting this incredible cross-pollination between the 3-D print area and the biology area,” said Briley. ”For instance, we’ve had a biotech company come in here and print off a model for an arterial stent on our 3-D printer. A biologist printed a complete microscope, and they got the lens for it second hand from an old glasses shop.” Even local biotech company employees have been showing up, he told LJ—“people who work in admin, people who perhaps don’t want to ask questions at work and look foolish, coming in to do some of our workshops.”
The Bio Lab’s official grand opening, attended by San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Rep. Scott Peters (D-San Diego), brought a surge of publicity, but the Collaboratory’s offerings have been popular since its soft launch in April. Attendance has consistently exceeded expectations—some 50 people showed up at Hyland’s most recent workshop, on the use of DNA in crime scene forensics. Audiences have skewed younger than expected, too. “The first workshop I did,” Hyland recalled, “was on green fluorescent protein transformation of bacteria. I had aimed the presentation and the content at adults, and I came in and it was all people under 15. So I had to adapt on the spot for a younger audience.”
“A MAKER SPACE FOR BIOLOGY”
SDPL director Misty Jones is pleased with the program’s reception. “The Library’s mission is to inspire lifelong learning through connections to knowledge and each other,” Jones said in a statement. “We are naturally technology facilitators and guides to the future. We know that fun and educational workshops pique the interest in the sciences among young people. She has already expressed interest in setting up a similar lab space in another branch.
While the regional biotech industry has helped ensure the success of the Collaboratory and Bio Lab, Briley feels that the program could be tweaked to serve any type of community—substituting an emphasis on environmental science or conservation, for example. Hyland agrees. “We want to make sure that this isn’t just something that happens once,” she told LJ, “that we set up a model that can be picked up by other communities.”
“What’s happening in biotechnology and how it’s going to impact everyone’s life is revolutionary,” said Briley, “and in order for there to be a proper civic debate about it, people who aren’t biologists need to understand it. We’re positioning ourselves as a place to do that. Most of what’s available right now is institutional laboratories in universities or in corporations, so one facet of this is that we’re providing public education to enable that civic engagement; the other is that we’ve actually created a Maker space for biology.”
“I love how everyone’s gotten into this, even people who don’t have a background in science,” Hyland said. “That’s why I think this is so fantastic—it’s allowing people who aren’t scientists to make science a part of their everyday life. And it’s not just people coming down from the ivory tower talking for half an hour and going back. This is actually something that’s going to be a part of people’s lives.”