BioMaker: Biologists as Tool-Builders
“If you can’t open it, you don’t own it.” – Maker motto.
“If you can’t open it, you don’t own it.” – Maker motto.
Alfréd Rényi famously joked that a mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems. We biologists, on the other hand, tend to need more equipment than a pencil and a coffee cup. Stand at your bench, and you can put your hands on almost a hundred different tools: everything from a benchtop sequencer all the way down to a molded-plastic cell scraper. While you have given countless hours of thought to the inner workings of your experimental organism, you probably haven’t considered the making and workings of these objects at all.
Whether you’ve thought about how they work or not, I bet you have an opinion about how at least one of those devices could work better. Use a tool thousands of times, especially when you’re tired or rushed, and you’ll know its flaws better than the designer did. But it may not have occurred to you that you could do something about it – that you could, in fact, get a job doing something about it.
But you can. And if you’re a certain kind of biologist – the sort that likes tinkering, and writing computer code, and looking at tools with the same critical, curious approach you apply to your experiments – it may be more fun than almost anything else you can do in the sciences. And you may have more to contribute to the field than you think. If you can “own” a piece of equipment from both the user’s perspective and the designer’s perspective, that’s a rare and valuable thing.
Over the last two years, I made exactly this leap. I started 2012 as a government scientist and college professor, having spent a decade and a half publishing papers, doing research, teaching, writing grants, and otherwise having a pretty conventional biologist’s career path. New Year’s Day 2014 found me finishing my first year in the bioinstrumentation business, complete with my first-ever patent application. The folks at Bio Careers have kindly invited me to blog about this new career: how I prepared for this job without realizing it, how and why I made the jump, and what it’s like to design and build lab hardware for a living.
So, tool-building. But isn’t this what ….engineers do? Why would you have trained as a biologist if you wanted to build machines instead of study lifeforms?
Actually, it’s a very old tradition in the field. Scientific tool building used to be a standard part of most biologists’ work in the laboratory. As an undergraduate, I was trained how to make and repair specialty glass pipets for benchwork by an older faculty member – an archaic skill now, but it was vital within living memory.
And some scientists had a real passion for it. The UC-Berkeley paleobiologist Zach Arnold, who trained some of my closest colleagues, delighted in designing and building new pieces of equipment for collecting and analyzing the microorganisms he studied, a group of shelled amoeba called foraminifera (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foraminifera). He would even use scientific terminology to describe his new tools.
To this day, I treasure his description of a collection funnel made from the “apertural end” of a milk jug – that’d be the end with the mouth, and it’s the same phrase used to describe the open end of a foram shell. Zach thought of this work as a vital part of being a scientist, and his notes on his inventions were donated to the university with the rest of his papers. (You can see a list of his inventions here.)
The Maker movement, which also helped to spark my career change, is a modern expression of this hands-on ethos. It won’t surprise you to hear that there has been a surge of interest in Maker versions of the workhorses of the biology laboratory. Late last year, Joshua Pearce of Michigan Technological University published a book on open-source laboratory equipment, and the web site Instructables ran a contest for the best homemade lab gear (http://www.instructables.com/contest/buildmylab/). If you think you might be inclined toward device design, a superb way to find out would be to try making some equipment yourself for fun – that’s how I started, a story I’ll tell you in the next entry.
The open-source scientific-Maker movement is interesting to biologists for both what it can accomplish, and what it can’t yet. One of the most important things I’ve learned from my new engineering colleagues has been the difference between a device that works, and one that can be counted on to work the “right” way a hundred times in a row – and what you have to do to build something that works every time.
There’s also a surprising amount of cleverness and effort required to go from a process to a machine that can perform that process. Humans, even that 18-year-old freshman you’re training, can intuit most of the task you’re trying to teach. Machines must sense objects and follow explicit algorithms. Engineers are taught this from the time they’re tiny and still teething on their first graphing calculators, but most of us biologists are not – we deal either with other humans, or with organisms that can handle most of their life functions without direct supervision. Truly getting into the mind of a machine is a new skill.
But you already have one valuable skill: you know the mind of the person who will be using the machine. A piece of lab equipment succeeds or fails based on how it interacts with the scientist and with the daily working rhythm of a laboratory. You, as a biologist, already know when the machine is behaving “correctly” from a user perspective. If you are literate enough in machine and product design, you can translate that knowledge into a working thing, which I find deeply satisfying. Maybe you would, too.
About the Author: Dr. Habura is an R&D scientist at Next Advance, Inc. (www.nextadvance.com), where she designs and develops equipment for biology research. She is also intensely interested in using 21st century manufacturing techniques and hardware to create specialized devices for basic science. Although she was educated at an engineering school (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), it took some time for the engineering mindset to completely manifest itself. Prior to her move into industry, she spent 15 years as an academic researcher and a tenured government scientist, specializing in the identification, ecology and evolution of eukaryotic microbes. She also held a position as a faculty member in the Department of Biomedical Sciences at the University at Albany, and she continues to serve as the Information Officer for the International Society of Protistologists.