Biotech Without Borders and community biology in NYC – A conversation with Danny Chan 

Published by Access 2 Perspectives on

Danny Chan is the President of Biotech Without Borders, a non-profit community biology lab in New York City. Besides trying to defend his time to pursue independent research centered around protocol development for the DIY science community, he enjoys video games, eating new food around the city, watching movies with his partner, and playing table-top RPGs.

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Danny received his MSc in Microbiology during the course of his PhD candidacy at the University of Chicago studying the interaction of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) with a model system of organotypic human keratinocytes in an infectious disease-focused department. He has been a research technician for many years in multiple fields including cellulosic ethanol production, protein crystallography, prefrontal cortex development, and heat shock proteins. The common set of skills underlying his practice are molecular biology and scientific inquiry which he aspires to apply to society in order to foster new institutions of research and learning. He worked as a medical editor, fact-checking pharmaceutical ads in an agency.

Danny Chan online

Biotech Without Borders

Photo: Danny Chan; photo credit: Faraz Toor

Which researcher – dead or alive – do you find inspiring? In the spirit of community biology I want to cite Santiago Ramon y Cajal as my inspiration because of his thoughtful reflections on where good science comes from (forgive his male-centered language):

Like all mental activities, the accomplishments of the scientist are heavily influenced by the physical and moral environments around him. It has been said, with good reason, that the man of learning is like a delicate plant that only thrives in a special medium—soil deposited by the culture of centuries and tilled by society’s care and esteem. In favorable surroundings, even the backward type has a feeling of accomplishment, whereas in a hostile or indifferent environment even the sharpest mind is discouraged.

But, the reader will remind us, research laboratories are always expensive. This is a sad mistake. It costs little to obtain the necessary tools.

In scientific work, means are virtually nothing whereas the person is almost everything.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal

Ultimately I believe communities (of purpose) are integral parts of creating the “moral” environments conducive to good research. And while I do think there is much to be gained by working together to steward more complex and expensive tools for research, I appreciate Cajal’s message to not let the means of science be confused for the ability to do scientific work.

What is your favorite animal and why? There are too many organisms in the world to pick a favourite, but once again the spirit of community biology I choose Dictyostelium discoideum. It’s a model amoeba that has taught us a lot about the evolution of multicellularity through the lens of social interactions. It’s my favourite because of the reasons that make it a good model: genetic tractability, short generation time, small size, and robust established methods. As well it’s varied lifestyle as a free-living amoeba, a multicellular “slug”, and a differentiated fruiting body, has inspired investigators to interpret greater patterns in social relationships requiring competition, cooperation, and altruism.

Name your (current) favorite song and interpret/group/musician/artist. SOFI TUKKER x Amadou & Mariam – “Mon Cheri” is bridging a smile to my face

What is your favorite dish/meal? A steamed fish (freshwater, to be true to my home on the Great Lakes) with ginger, scallion, and soy sauce served with steamed rice.

Photo Credit: Danny Chan (CC0) ‘Bulletin Board in my home’
Photo Credit: Danny Chan (CC0), ‘The Lab’


Jo: Hey, and welcome to Access 2 Perspectives conversations. Here’s Jo Havemann. And with me today is Danny Chan. Welcome, Danny.

Danny: Hello. Hi. Thanks for having me, Jo. It’s exciting to be here. 

Jo: It’s great having you. So, Danny, you are the director and founder of Biotech Without Borders. Please tell us a bit about what you do in that organization. And also what brought you here? Why did you find it?

Danny: Actually not the founder. I’m the President right now, but the founder is a woman named Ellen Jorgenson, and she’s founded some other community Biolabs is what we call them in the past. So this is the second one that she’s made and I took over just before the pandemic, which is a difficult time, but it’s been an interesting process. Community biology is this concept. Like maker spaces, you can bring together the tools to do a variety of different experiments, bench top experiments, molecular biology typically, bring them into a space where people can pay a membership fee and be able to use this equipment that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to use in their homes. And it’s really focused on trying to increase the capacity to do not even biomedical, just biology research in general to audiences that might not have a traditional pathway to gain this knowledge. And so, yeah, there’s definitely a tradition of hackers that exist within this space. People call themselves biohackers sometimes. Community biology, I think, is the term now that we try to use because it implies more that it’s more than just solo projects that are going out trying to make some sort of disrupt something in the current way of things, but rather some shared values, perhaps what we’re trying to cultivate with our organization. I’ve been very inspired by community Gardens, thinking about the lab as if we all share this land. I mean, it’s rented from an industrial building, so it’s not quite just like land out there on the planet Earth, but nevertheless, we have to take care of it together and ensure the mutual safety of the people that work inside. But in return, we’re able to access capabilities that typically folks don’t have if they aren’t affiliated with an institutional sort of industry or an academic institution. 

Jo: That’s great. So how did you get to be interested in community biology and what brought you particular to Biotech without Borders?

Danny: So what got me interested in community biology was probably a Wired article some time ago. I don’t quite recall what it said, but it was about this type of space, this community biology lab. At the time, there weren’t as many in the world. I was in graduate school studying infectious disease at the time and just reading Internet articles like one does read that there were groups that were trying to do research outside of that institution. And it had occurred to me during my training to get to that point that a lot of the tools that I was using were very complex. In fact, that’s why I ended up going to school in the States. So I’m a Canadian citizen, and I did this co-op work term in school where I got to work in different labs to try to get some experience. Maybe I thought it would help me find a job in the future. And when I came to the States during one of those co op work terms, my supervisor told me, the equipment is really nice here. So if you’re able to get into a graduate program in the States, you’ll have access to all this very cool equipment. So always in my head I had a mind to say, well, I want access to ask interesting questions using interesting equipment. And I knew that there was a lot of infrastructure behind that. So reading this article in Wired saying that just community members were doing research, they bootstrapped something together. They found the connections that they needed. I think it was maybe a sequencing run they did by taking a canoe out to sample some sediment from a city site and then sending it to some academic facility to be sequenced. But then the community sort of was able to ask questions with that data. I just thought that was amazing. And so that was always in the back of my head as I was going through my training as a community that I wanted to make contact with sometime in the future. And so when I ended up dropping out of my PhD, I came to New York City to meet these people and see what it was that they were doing that enabled them to do a project like that that wasn’t supported by a traditional structure. And so in that process, I found out that while I was always interested in teaching, I found out that this is also an audience to teach science to in a very different capacity than you would teach inside of a University structure. And it was also very gratifying to teach in that environment. 

Jo: Well, imagine I’ve seen a few biotech community spaces also, and I feel it’s more engaging by its nature. Also, you get to explain about biotech experiments in different ways than you would with peers in your discipline or other values. 

Danny: Absolutely. 

Jo: It doesn’t give us anything active. Right. On biotech research of all. 

Danny: Yeah, that’s a really good point. And that’s what I was thinking about. It’s teaching biology outside of the context of the University. People are concerned, people won’t want to be entertained. So there’s this element to teaching biology in this space that entertaining people is part of the job, in that people don’t need to learn this skill in order to find a research position or so forth. Some people do come to these classes with that intention, sort of extracurricular outside training. I think people are inspired by coding boot camps, and that’s an example of a very successful program that the community labs in New York City run. They say biohacker boot camp people come from various backgrounds. They want to just learn how to transform a Plasmid into E. Coli or maybe do a restriction to digest something of that nature. So there is an interest for retraining, but often it also comes from just the enthusiasm to touch these tools, these physical objects that actually are very divorced, I think, from everyday life. But as I learned as I was working in labs as a research tech, it’s not that strange. It’s kind of like baking or kind of like cooking. And there’s something that changes, I believe. And I think there’s some research. I’m not super fluent in pedagogical research, but I believe there is an indication that learning with your hands in a circumstance where there’s maybe like an application that you’re thinking about project based learning, this type of engagement really does change the way that we then utilize that knowledge. And so it’s through those types of education programs that we fulfill one part of our mission, which is to make biotechnology more accessible and hearing people come from different walks of life into the classrooms, you get very different types of questions. And as long as you’re creating that sort of safe space that allows people to feel free to ask those questions. I think that there is a lot that as a teacher, you learn about the way in which technologies are viewed in the general society. 

Jo: When you think about biotech also, then think about hazards or potential hazards. Is there any experiment where you say you can’t do that that would be too dangerous for our participants? 

Danny: Yeah, absolutely. So when the first round of community biology labs emerged, that was, I think, there’s a lot of foresight being put into thought around making sure that these spaces are safe to do those types of things. So we run BSL one style laboratories, and we ask that our members share with us their experimental plans. And then we also maintain, like, a white list of reagents and things that we will allow inside of our organization and those that we won’t. In some ways, this is very challenging because inside of the institution, like you have all these departments, internal departments to do all this work. But outside, it has to be done with our own oversight bodies. But there’s a community out there. This global Community BIOS Summit is one example. But before that, there was a DIY bio. And some people got that discussion going between all the different labs that exist in this manner. And that discussion and those email lists actually are an important place to reach out in terms of finding support for instituting these types of safety protocols that are required to work there. There’s always going to be a perception. I’m glad you brought it up, because it is important to speak about a perception of doing science that somehow we require a certain level of institution or bureaucracy to keep us safe. The public places their trust within universities in order to keep them safe from, I don’t know, some unknown, undefined danger. But I think it’s important to remember that that is a type of trust and that even well established institutions can have difficulties like sort of executing on that type of thing. So in our community, we try our best to forefront those values in terms of safety and thinking about the impact of one’s work not just to the safety of the individual, but the safety to the community at large. And yeah, the existence of that program, I think, is exactly what exists in other institutions. And so is what allows people to be creative in space in a way that ensures their safety.

Jo: Okay. Now, after talking about the security aspects, what are maybe experiments that were brought into the lab that you’ve observed and maybe found surprising and exciting also to see ideas come up and experiments being run in that space that you provide. 

Danny: Right. So I would say, first I’ll say that there’s probably two types of experiments that get done in space. One version is people that are driven by their curiosity or some hobby motivation just to play within the lab space. But then there’s also another category of people where maybe they’re trying to get some preliminary data for a grant application, specifically those that feed into private public partnership, or maybe they’re a startup and they want some preliminary data to show investors this style. There are two kinds of broad categories I actually am very agnostic to thinking about. I don’t want to say that those are the only two types of things that come into community biology labs because really the focus is on the infrastructure allowing people to think of their own use cases. But from spending time, I would say two categories come through. And so on the business side, there’s a story that comes from biotech with our borders. But really the organization that came before us when the staffing was more aligned, the way that we do it was just the pipetting robots trying to make low cost robots to do pipetting. And yeah, that was just something I think that may have come from an IgM team. So IgM is a competition. I think that’s right out of Boston. But it has an international presence now. They’d get high schoolers and undergraduates to put together some sort of scientific project, and they take them through all these planning steps. So that was one of the early ways in which community biology labs provided a space for individuals to launch a project such as that. And from that usually created like an initial organization that became very fruitful. So I don’t quite remember the story. The origin story of it was an IgM team, but it was some sort of something related to that where they were doing a lot of pipetting, and then they realized, oh, this would be really great if we could automate it. And of course, you’re in a maker space. So people want to make all sorts of things. Let’s make a robot that could do that. And then it was some confluence of meeting the right people and those who were involved that ended up being quite a successful company that spun off from the organization. This model of incubators talks a lot. Now, I think about one category because I think it’s an interesting point to go to a business incubator. Now, sometimes founders can be given money because they believe they invest in a founder, you do something specific. But there is a gatekeeping effect there that happens, and that requires quite a bit of capital. And my hope is that by opening a space like this and maintaining a space like this for some time within the city, there’ll be other on ramps for people with not as much capital or who investors wouldn’t typically think are the right type of person to put money into, for those people to really prove to the world in some ways that they can get the data, at least the beginnings of the data that they need to build that confidence and then move into that particular part of our world’s ecosystem, the sort of biotech startup space. Okay, so that’s one element, the second element being people who come in purely on the curiosity level. At that stage, I find it very fascinating to look at environmental monitoring. I think people become very at least what I’ve experienced in the States are people are very aware that there are environments. It matters where you’re looking for different contaminants. People want to know what’s in their water, what’s in their backyard. There’s a group right now who found some money through a company grant to sequence soils and sediments from around the city and compost. And they did that by partnering with some academics, but also partnering with city agencies somewhat. But it’s all their initiative. They got the money to do the grant, and now they have all the sequencing data, and we’re able to find volunteers to do analysis on that and maybe start to articulate questions that people just don’t think that you can ask. I think if you walk down the street and you ask folks like, do you think that you could do microbial monitoring of a certain environment? I think most people would say no, but if you get 5 hours and some trained individuals around you, I think that answer changes to yes. And so this type of project, I think, is quite interesting. What else have people been doing? So sometimes there’s a lot of global collaborations that are going on. One that’s close to my heart right now is that I’m trying to get interns to work on this low cost enzyme production, so it’s difficult to buy. 

Danny: Sorry? 

Jo: Are you talking about Riclon?  

Danny: Riclon, like the open bio economy? I’m not sure if Riclon is part of that. 

Jo: Yeah, they’re intertwined for sure. Which one are you talking about?

Danny: For us, I’m trying to speak with an organization called frenzymes. They were an IGM team. And then also the organization open bio economy, which I think comes from Shuttleworth founded investigator Jenny Malone. And so both of those groups are trying to do this research. And as a community lab, we have infrastructure. We also have needs, like we would like to make enzymes for ourselves and not have that be a constant expense. Right. Yeah, I’m quite excited, actually, for this summer. We’re going to have some interns in and we’ll be trying to research on this level, just creating some forms of protein that we need to calibrate equipment and then also creating polymerase that we use in some of the classes that we teach. Or maybe some members need polymerase and don’t want to buy it. They can make it instead. That’s what I’m pushing forward, I guess. I’m also interested in doing things like making, you know, I was reading recently that Impossible foods, they make heme inside of yeast. And there’s some lawsuit, I think, going on because other copycat companies have emerged to also perhaps replicate that technology. But I’m sort of interested in just making it for the home scale, not to sell, but just to have a yeast that tastes a bit bloody. Right. Have that as a seasoning on my shelf, something like this. So I enjoy that. Kombucha, people do a lot of links to food, I think sometimes not necessarily to consume it. So I think there’s, like, work that has to be done to make sure that the things that we make in the lab are safe to consume. But just for the Curiosity’s sake, to know what bacteria are growing your Kombucha. And there’s some dream. It’s actually from Counterculture Labs, another community lab in the US. Some dreams will be like a family tree of all the Kombuchas just meeting people and inviting them into the lab. So, yeah, that’s something. Some artists there’s artist projects that go on here. I think someone is trying to make, like, grow cells up to maybe harken to the hot dog slime, like this heavily processed type of food products and grow some cells within the lab in order to demonstrate some link between those. I’m not quite sure. Again, I’m not in these projects. I just sort of see them from above.

Yeah. I think that’s mostly everything some people want to investigate. There’s a group that wants to investigate different farming practices. So there’s some traditional farming practices that leverage an initial inoculum that is collected from the environment. So they steam grains and then they put the grains into the environment they get inoculated, and then that serves as the basis of a fermentation that then is spread over a field. And there’s some interest in understanding that a bit better, maybe mechanistically or just identifying some species. And so there are some people that are coming to use that and then some teachers, we had some teachers that come to play around with the kits that they’re buying from companies. So that they don’t do it the first time in front of the students and so that they can fit that better into their curriculum. Yeah. So there’s all sorts of interesting projects. Again, I don’t want to offer these up in any way to limit the type of thought that should be around it. At the end of the day, what we provide as an organization is this infrastructure, the lack of infrastructure and many other professions have this. Like you have the wood shops and things that you can use for rent, and if you’re trained in carpentry, you can go and you can make a project. But I feel like the equivalence is lacking for biologists. And there’s the reality that it takes a long time to get data. It’s difficult. It’s not an easy task to go down that path, but to have that option open, I think is very important. And to cultivate a community that’s willing to support each other in the pursuit of some of these difficult to acquire pieces of data, I think that that is actually quite valuable as well. 

Jo: I think so too. I would like to take you up on two or three lines of thought of what you just mentioned. 

Danny: Absolutely. 

Jo: I’m very much interested in global research equity. I mentioned Open Bio Economy Lab and the work of Jenna Malloy and Mamboa and Harry. And also in terms of purpose driven research, like what I hear from all the examples, and I found that you provided quite a wide scope or a breadth of topics that people bring into the community space. So when you say that the projects that are being worked on are for the most part purpose driven, and I’m asking this because when I give workshops on anything and communication related, and I ask the early career researchers, primarily PhD students of any curriculum or here why they do research, some say out of curiosity, which is I think also what you mentioned, like some people come because they’re curious. They want to explore, which is also the beauty with research and the idea of becoming a researcher. And I think it’s almost 50-50. The other half said I have a purpose. I want to help build or help to mitigate climate change. I want to help to develop a vaccine for this and that virus. I want to save the world. 

Danny: Definitely 

Jo: … or parts of it. Maybe the question was wrongly asked…

Danny: But no, I hear what you’re saying. I think purpose is definitely one of the major driving factors behind projects that enter this type of space. And I think a big part of that reason and also something that I want to encourage within the public is that science is just a tool. It’s a tool for us to gain access to information. And so if people have a purpose, I think that they should be able to use all the tools in their toolbox, the toolbox of this world in order to achieve that. And I’d like to see more. I am trying to be very active in my role of facilitating this organization, to just encourage people to pick a purpose and then begin dissecting that scientifically, perhaps thinking about what knowledge they need to build, what skills might they need to address that purpose? And of course, businesses, they sort of come with their own purpose, built in entrepreneurial sorts, like they have a market that they’re seeking that they’re going for. But even then, that purpose may shift. Like, I think it’s also purpose is a very human thing, that it changes based on what we learn about the world and how we shift it. And it can be liberating, I hope for people that join our lab in order to follow their purpose, to know that there’s always support in the way that you would choose to change. Like, we’re not going to strip funding away because the purpose no longer aligns with funded goals or something like this. We’re seeking to create some common infrastructure to allow people with purpose to explore and use. 

Jo: Thank you. Also, you elaborated on my shaky question, but now you also put some foundation to it because I mentioned in the beginning framing the question that I’m personally invested in global research equity. And I mean that literally globally. Like where I also work with a stellar team for AfricArchive, an African open access portal where we work towards discoverability of African research output. So that’s really the global scale. And at the same time, global research equity to me also means I now have a better picture of that on the national level. Like to allow different stakeholders. That’s the part where you come in. So the community labs allow stakeholders within society to actually meet in one space physically, also to engage and think about and think with research experiments like purpose driven, solution oriented. And that is another level for me. Also research equity also in a global sense in a way, because it’s replicable. And we also mentioned open bio economy labs and other international spaces that aim to democratize and make research affordable for researchers in any funded research institution as well as and here it comes, other stakeholders of society. And I also want to go towards maybe two or three questions from now as a conversation on both also the intersection between the academic sector, industry and community labs in between and above, and as fundamental in a way or as the glue between the two in a way or where they can also be involved. And I also want to mention that in the Human rights declaration is Article 27, so participation and engagement in research is actually human rights, because the way you describe with a border and the kind of work you do in the space you provide brings us to life in a beautiful way. 

Danny: Yeah. So I do think very locally in this context. But of course, the challenge of doing good work in society is to take those local contexts, but also draw those parallels to something global, because within the local context, I think there’s a lot to learn in terms of fitting into the community, figuring out how do we invite the community into this lab and not just drop them this, like, pay your membership fees and here use the equipment, but rather what sort of programming, could we do to illuminate the types of research that could be done by the communities again, that live immediately around us, and they stand to benefit in some way. And to that end, I’ve been trying to partner and successfully. So we’re going to be partnering with the local library system, because I think librarians. I mean, I love librarians. I think that they have an eye towards access in a way that really thinks about servicing those in need. And so trying to partner with them in order to give classes to different demographics, tap into those networks and provide our expertise. So many of us who are members of biotech without borders, we are trained within the academic system, and maybe we’re taking different career paths. Some people now are in the industry. Some people are still teaching adjunct professors and so forth. Some are trying to work in nonprofit institutions like this. But we recognize that there’s some power in the training that we acquired in that institution, and we’d like to apply it to the world in a way that is going to have an impact. And so through coming together in an organization like ours, we’re also now realizing that we can support community organizations by providing our skills as, like, teaching workshops and running things in a vendor relationship with some of these organizations. And I think that that’s, like, a really powerful thing. Just to say, getting to know those with scientific training, coming together with some shared purpose, you can find ways to enrich your local community. And then hopefully that there’s going to be something reciprocal there that then those community members will feel like that this lab is theirs as well. And we’ll see how that direction shifts, how their priorities and how the project may change within the space. With input from more than just a bunch of different academically trained individuals coming together with this shared purpose.

Jo:  I want to take you up on the name of your space also BioTech Without Borders. I think we’ve all heard of other Without Borders organizations, like Medicine without borders, Journalist without borders etc. We all literally work globally or especially in conflict regions on this planet. Do you see that you’re also addressing this, or is this on your roadmap to I mean, in part, you already answered that. But is this also part of the mandate that BioTech without borders gives itself? 

Danny: I think when the organization was initially founded, that terminology, borders was meant more about borders between sectors of society within how academia becomes walled off, sometimes through jargon, through inaccessibility of those resources. But over the pandemic, I’ve been thinking a lot about the name and how that relates to the type of work that we do. And I think I touched on this in my last response. That idea of connecting the local to the global is something that takes work. It takes work to maintain relationships, like kind of globe straddling relationships and check in and talk about the recent developments, the challenges that we’re facing in different global contexts, and taking those lessons and then condensing them for our membership and for people that come from the local community to be able to conceptualize better what that global research enterprise looks like, and not just from the mouthpiece of some large Corporation that tells you what global research is all about. But from a network of individuals who care about the world and who are trying to use science to make some impact that I see as the primary way in which we’re hitting this Without Borders now. So being a part of collaborations that are spanning multiple countries. That’s at the forefront. Like, if I’m going to get interns to work on something as an organization, we’ll be looking at research through that lens. But even just chatting with people that are running projects in different countries and explaining those projects to the locals here, trying to make those connections and then maybe connecting them by saying you should join that other group. If this is resonating with you more than something that I’m saying, then it’s not about me. It’s not about joining this organization. But really, you should just be like hitting those people up. And creating those networks. So, yeah, that’s the way that I’ve been thinking about Without Borders during this. During this time. 

Jo: Yeah. Makes a lot of sense now, coming to the intersection between academia, industry, and our community labs. Do you already have partners in either of those sectors, or is that something you would wish for to have more of? Or would you rather stay independent of any formal partnerships with institutions or research institutions and industry research, for whatever reason? How would you position community leverage?

Danny: I would love more partnerships with those types of organizations. This, I think, goes back to those like Makerspace, hackerspace routes, that there is this conception of trying to create our own system where we have a type of self governance, where the community sets the values and we don’t have to worry too much about adopting the values of some organization that wants to partner. But at the same time, I have to think that cooperation is the way forward. I mean, that’s a fundamental belief of my own. And so exploring what those partnerships might look like is something that I’m willing to do. I mentioned the library system as a natural partner for us. Academia has not been the same type of partner. I would say we partner with academics like labs and so forth, but the institution itself taps into the administrative interface of universities, we haven’t pursued that. I’m actually not aware of too many community labs that explore that interface, mostly just through individual principal investigators. So I mentioned we have some adjunct professors that work with us. I’m definitely interested in exploring collaborations with other tenure track professors or others that have different positions within the Academy. Librarians, as I mentioned, I actually think that there will be fruitful conversations to be had with academic librarians because, like, they within that larger organization are fighting for a different type of… they have their own fights that they want. Right. In terms of knowledge access and equity. And then on the industry side, that definitely has been an influence for us being in this neighborhood, because the city is fantastically obsessed with bolstering the biotech industry and becoming some competitor to attract companies and create jobs in this area. So in that way, I see a natural alignment because we want people to be happily employed. We want people to find success in their personal and professional lives. Right now, we don’t have any formal partnership with companies, but we are working with what they call themselves like a business partnership or employment services, this type of organization to try to expose job seekers to the possibilities. So just showing up at career fairs to talk about the options that are out there, the many different career paths that exist, that’s one of the ways that we’re interfacing. And I’ve actually been really interested in this idea that companies need to do a better job about explaining the impact of their technologies to the general public, not just like the investor pitch. Like, okay, the investor pitch. I know they need to do that for their survival. But what about the pitch that says and here’s how our technology is helping you and then an open platform to ask questions? Why do they think that this is going to help us? Who exactly is that population? I think that would be a really interesting partnership that I’m willing to engage in, but I haven’t really had the time yet to make those connections. Hopefully in a year we’ll see where this is developed. 

Jo: Yeah. It’s certainly worthwhile to continue following up with as a line of call.  You mentioned that you had basic spin offs out of tinkering in the space that then joined the startup accelerator program. Let’s talk a little bit about the funding of research in general, how you’ve observed research is being funded in academia and the opportunities you see in finding the kind of work you’re doing. Also research for some you mentioned that you have some research to actually finish or start exploring proposals to pitch to investors in the industry side or research funders and academic components. 

Danny: Yes. Like a public private partnership in the States, they call them SIBR grants. That’s like specifically, you have to be outside of the academic system. You have to have a partner company, and then you provide some initial data to apply for this type of grant in order to see if that could develop the business further, something like this. 

Jo: It looks like the community space is very much already like a seeding lab. No way to provide the environment to actually plan the seed for a project that then can grow into a startup, which then eventually can grow into a company, but also on the research side to develop research ideas and start testing and then getting funding for it. And if you go for a three or five year research project. 

Danny:Yeah, absolutely. 

Jo: What’s the financial backup for that in society? 

Danny: Yes. I guess the unfortunate part about this reality is that members find out of their own pockets in all of these cases. So at least for this initial step or the benefit that we offer as maintaining this lab is infrastructure. At the end of the day, we have to contribute together to keep the space open, and as well, people have to buy their own reagents and so forth in order to do that experimental work. It’s been one of my dreams. We’re working as a collective right now at Biotech without borders. And so one of the directions that I’m trying to push us towards is becoming like a fiscal sponsor for small projects. It’s actually quite common in the arts. To have organizations provide fiscal sponsoring for an artist to run a project. So that provides them like a financial container to store money. We have this tax free status. And so I’m interested in expanding that for a small investigator. Whether that be at the beginning of a business, whether that be curiosity driven, whether that be to create initial grant data, trying to build out that part of the administrative services that we offer as an organization. There’s an infrastructure layer that we’re trying to offer, and then there’s also an administrative layer that we offer. And both are geared towards, as we said before, democratizing biotechnology, increasing access to this and then bringing people together to also chat because the chatting and the communicating of your project is so important as well. There’s something that I loved when I was in academia, to be in a lab. Everyone has their project. You have a lab meeting. You’re chatting like you go to conferences. But to open that up for even more people to join. And show people that that’s like a place where you can really develop your ideas and really find lifelong colleagues. In some instances, when you find the right person, that clicks with the way that you think that can be really valuable anyways. Yeah. Trying to be a fiscal host is the thing that we’re thinking about in terms of funding. But yeah, we’re a low resource lab. I mentioned before wanting to work with frenzymes in the open bio economy. That comes from a place of solidarity. Our funding structure isn’t like a generous grant or a large institution backing us. We’re funded by our members, and for the members that do become successful and spin off companies like they are able to contribute more than the numbers that don’t. But that’s what we’re going for here is a very grass roots funded organization and we invite others to benefit from what we’re bringing together to fundraise themselves at the grassroots level to try to get their projects off the ground. 

Jo: Yeah. You’re also not alone with this approach because the comments or it’s commonly known as the comments is quite a common approach into a massive online resource, the biggest online ever with the same approach. So it’s not so utopian or visionary anymore as much as it stretched for resources. The other question would be if we would see it more negatively, like why do we have to struggle with the community so much where the values are obvious?

Danny: No, I think there is a bit of a struggle because one of the first things that we thought about was looking for grant opportunities in order to fund the organization. But grants often fund programs, so they want to see the impact on how many people are going through the program and so forth. It’s hard sometimes to find infrastructure grants. Infrastructure grants are given to large institutions, but infrastructure grants for small institutions, that’s what I envision. That’s like a tiny institution. I think there’s a little gap in funding there. But again, this might also be my ignorance. In some ways I’m still working to get our capabilities up and attract more members. I haven’t focused a lot on looking for those particular grants, but I would say that that’s something that if there’s granters listening, thinking about small scale infrastructure grants seems like a really useful thing. 

Jo: Yeah. I think it’s also with the initiatives that I coordinate and work with other colleagues to pull off, I find the idea of having to ask for money for something that’s so obviously available, like why can’t we turn the wheel and rather showcase what we do and have investors pitched to invest in us and when we select. 


Jo: What’s your purpose? Like, where is this money coming from? Literally, I have an ease to cherry pick the best fit for the kind of work we do. 

Danny: Yeah, that sounds wonderful. When you find out the organization that does that work, connect me, please.

Jo: Okay. Well, I think again, I think this triangle between the academia industry and community labs is a perfect model for engagement. And earlier I just had a vision of any research or biotech research lab using the community space and particularly yours, by technical borders instead of an open door day at the University. But to come and showcase the kind of research that it’s currently working on, designing a small scale experiment thereof, and then use that as science communication as part of their degree, they have to do that. And it’s also fun and engaging and rewarding to do it. 

Danny: Absolutely. Yeah. As I said when I first taught classes within this space to the general public, showing the general public a restriction digest and how this is a ruler for DNA. The questions and the engagement. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship to be able to impart that knowledge in a way that you don’t normally speak about it, and then take those thoughts and understandings back with you to the lab and just have that rich review of the work of science within society contextualized a little bit better. I think that there’s a lot to be gained by flipping through these different types of institutions and trying out your skills within each of them, seeing what impact it has. 

Jo: Do you feel you have a mandate and research integrity with the approach and the opportunity that community labs bring? 

Danny: Yeah, it’s interesting. I don’t think I’ve thought too explicitly about that particular topic. But I will say this, that one of the issues within research integrity is about incentive structures, like something that drives sometimes fraudulent work is the pressure to remain within the system and to have a stable career. We don’t work from that space at all. The pressure here is there’s no pressure. It’s voluntary. Members come if they have the finances to be able to interface with us or even offer free events as well, they can come out and just be part of the community, then you can join this enterprise. And so I would hope that the incentives for fraudulent research aren’t generated by our institution. But of course, they exist external. Right? There’s going to be folks that maybe want to do research in this lab and will falsify their results and send them out to those granting organizations. We don’t explicitly control for that. But I would say I don’t think academia is controlling for that either. There’s no police at that level. Yeah, there’s a lot of fingers. Maybe this is like a strange digression, but I do a YouTube channel with a friend that I met in graduate school. He is a publisher. He works for publishers. And the reason why we do this together, we do a Journal club. We talk about cool microbiology news every week. The reason why we do this is because the best defense against bad research is reading the research, and it’s a difficult task. It requires. I think community is like a big part of it. But looking at those results and bringing your critical eye to them, the more people that do that, the more people that comment on the status of different experiments. I think that makes the research more robust. So, yeah, research integrity, I think, is a very systemic and complicated problem, insomnia much as I don’t think we contribute to that issue, but I haven’t thought yet of how we might actually tackle it head on. 

Jo: I think you did answer that when you said that the pressure is not there to stay in the system by providing eccentrics. So naturally, what I understand is research integrity is to be aware of the purpose, why we do what we do, and how do we accumulate the knowledge and how do we make sure there’s accessibility to that accumulation of knowledge, and only then research makes sense. And that’s basically the essence of community spaces, to provide space for learning, for exchange, for community. I mean, it’s almost a better academic system as much as most academics wish for research to be working that way. And with open science, I think we are working towards that pretty actively already. What does open science mean to you? Do you feel that with the work of biotech, without borders, you now have the opportunity to practice open science the way you always wanted to.

Danny: 100%. And again, I guess that goes right back to what you picked out of my response, saying that the pressure to perform doesn’t exist in this space in the same way. So the challenges are different. The challenges are like that resource sort of the low resource environment is the challenge here. And sort of being able to engage community members to assist, whether through their own efforts, like labor at the bench, let’s say, or by donating, that, I think, is sort of the major challenge to overcome within this space. But in terms of doing research the way that I think that has the highest integrity to my standards, I don’t have any barriers to that. In this place. And so what I’ve also been interested in, and I think I probably will, is I’ve always loved certain open research. Like during graduate school, I was trying to choose the tool chain that I was going to use to turn out papers day in and day out. And I was trying to be very careful by choosing the tool chain that would expose my work to the most scrutiny so people could see the data processing that I was using, code my data, put things into the terrain, all my citations, like referenceable, and people can see that probably off my ORCID ID. Like the one contribution, one of the contributions that I made in the way that I put together that GitHub page in this space, I feel like I can do that sort of safely. But that’s because no one’s watching me. I do it to my integrity.

Jo: Because it’s over with many people watching, but nobody’s judging. 

Danny: Yes. Discoverability. I think this is definitely a topic about open science. What’s discoverability in open science. Because there’s going to be lots of generation of stuff and being able to discover it and find the things that are relevant to your particular questions across all the different platforms that people may be choosing to publish in openly. I think this kind of thing remains. It’s something that has to be thought about with some care, because algorithms will introduce bias and journals have their specific slant of which publications they want to direct you towards. And so being able to navigate across all that knowledge, I think is. Yeah, I don’t know what the solution is yet, but of course, it is better than what we have now. So that’s published openly. 

Jo: We had an episode on that with Donny. Well, it’s mostly on research data management, and we also talk about the Semantic Scholarly Network, so to say, I think we have quite a few good options on the table and there’s some decent exploration to make sense of the masses of data that’s being generated in academia. 

Danny: Exciting. Yeah. Some new tools I probably have to learn then, right. To navigate through. Jo: But there’s a few tools that look very promising. Yeah. Mostly through literature screening. And Open Knowledge Maps is one of my favorites. 

Danny: I love Open Knowledge Maps.

Jo: And then sites that I own that compare or analyze the reference section of manuscript to analyze or the concepts are analyzed if there’s support in the references or contradiction. 

Danny: Yeah. I’ve definitely experienced that in reading literature when you go down the citation, but you’re like, this is not how it said. 

Jo: Yeah. It’s important to be helped by machines to make sense of the sheer mass. And then we still need the human factor to make actual sense of it. And then the metadata, the contextualization of the research output. That is one of my favorite topics. And it’s also heavily underserved, unfortunately. So what’s the use of research data being generated, articles being published if for once, the articles never see the light of day or are not accessible, or the research is presented in a way that’s not reproducible or is not contextualized. We can’t learn anything from it other than for that very specific purpose it was designed for. Yeah. I think purpose needs a better standing in research altogether. And this is, again, why I think community labs are so important, because society and the members of society have a chance to have the same kind of research to be done. Once it’s underway, how it can be contextualized in a way. 

Danny: When you were explaining in your description of these different tools that exist and some of them are new. I will also say that community labs were able to adapt quite quickly to new tools that appear in the sense that most people who are in here, many people have said to me on the community side, like they don’t care about publication, they just want to do something interesting. But that also means that we can easily direct people to the tools that have the most impact and we’ll build very because every network needs a user base. And I think for researchers and community labs, there is an opportunity to really choose just the best tools from the open science ecosystem and expose our research in that fashion. And I think it will help, too, to have more people engage with research and put them into the sort of academic knowledge system from community labs, because we do need to build the public’s confidence in this type of organization. Like community labs, not every city has a community lab. It’s not an easy thing to launch because there are already so many places that you can get paid a lot more money to do research in. But for those who do find some sort of lab within their city, it becomes like a labor of love to provide this infrastructure for many different sectors of society inside of academia as well as inside of the community. And so it just needs more positive press, I think, in terms of the value that it could have to everyday folks, but also to people who are already engaged within the more traditional enterprises. 

Jo: Yeah. Honoring the time, I think we’re approaching our beyond like an hour. Is there anything else? What you just said sounds like the perfect epilogue to this episode. 

Danny: Yeah, I think so. It’s nice to be able to chat about the enterprise that we’re trying to build at Biotech Without Borders and hear your questions, because it’s through conversation that we solidify, I think in many ways, like whether our actions are aligning in the way that we think they are to the external side. And I’m very community minded in that I want our organization to grow through membership and through these types of conversations to be able to chart a path for our organization that will lead us to some sustainability. So we’re not there yet. That’s like the number one goal is being self-sustaining here in New York City, and I believe it can be done because there’s real value to be had in working in these spaces. I think we’ve talked about that a bunch of times throughout this podcast, and there’s also joy to be had working in community with people who have similar values. And so, yeah, I’m happy that you’ve given us this opportunity to speak about Biotech Without Borders, and I hope we get people who are interested. 

Jo: I’m sure there are many of the listeners who are very much interested in the kind of work to do. I also want to point out another episode that we had previously on Open Hardware Makers program, which is also not exclusively open to non academics as well to build hardware, and probably also a community to keep an eye on because what the participant of these programs that just launched the first cohort will produce, some of which will probably also be applicable in community spaces. 

Danny: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Open Hardware and Gosh, their work has significantly lowered the barrier to access in terms of tools that we could furnish our lab with. Definitely an important part. I’m glad that you made this connection. 

Jo: Many intersections. Many opportunities for partnerships. Nonprofit, for profit industry, academia and governmental. Yeah, I’m glad that you do this kind of work, that community spaces exist as part of the ecosystem. It is a human right for any human being on this very planet to engage in research and you’re providing that space. So thanks for that. 

Danny: Excellent. 

Jo: Yeah and speak to you soon again. Welcome back to another episode whenever you want to. The door is open. 

Danny: Sounds good. Thank you, Jo. It was great to be here.

References (related research articles)