The mission of The LAB is to make science accessible to people of all ages and educational backgrounds. We do this by providing laboratory equipment and workspace, resources which are typically out of the reach of the amateur, to anyone passionate about learning. We put on classes geared towards beginners so anyone can join and we organize open meetup days where newcomers can mingle with veterans to exchange ideas. In addition, we allow members to use our common resources to work on their own research projects. We believe the combination of an open laboratory and cutting edge research projects makes for an exciting learning environment.
Me: Tell me about yourself, the team you worked with to build LA Biohacker lab and why did you build them?
Tobin: At the time that we created our group I was a phd student at Caltech. Me and many of the other early founders were working on small projects in our apartments or garage. Some were students like myself and some were working in completely different fields. We had met at a conference in LA in 2009 and started meeting up at coffee shops, discussing how to get a lab going in LA. One of the founding members, Tor Solli-Nowlan, was a member at Null Space Labs and managed to get us a small corner of that hackerspace to use for ourselves.
At the beginning we did not have a clear goal. We were doing it because we wanted to do it. Everyone had their own pet projects and we were a loose knit community that basically existed to pool resources and socialize. Eventually things became more serious and we became more organized once we saw this group being a permanent institution.
Me: How did you find the space and funding?
Tobin: Initially Tor found us space at Null Space Labs. We then moved to a garage, free of rent. After we outgrew that space we started looking for a more proper location for our group. We searched Craigslist and found a really scary looking warehouse unit on the 6th floor above a door factory.
As for money, since day 1 we have always survived off of monthly membership fees. We have never done any major fundraising, or at least been successful at it. Occasionally we offer classes which brings in some money but mainly just membership fees.
Me: Was building the LA Biohacker lab community hard? Who is/was part of the community?
Tobin: The most difficult part is organizing a group of people composed completely of volunteers. Organizing employees is fairly easy because they tend to show up on time and follow the boss's directions. Volunteers come and go as they please and have their own strong opinions about how things should be done. Organizing volunteers requires a patient leader rather than just a boss, which is more difficult to accomplish.
The community is composed of a wide variety of people who range in age, education and biological experience. Our youngest current member is 11.
Me: What types of equipment did you find you needed and what were the challenges you encountered?
Tobin: The most challenging pieces of equipment to get are the big things like biosafety cabinets. You can't just get FedEx to deliver it. They weigh 600+ pounds and require a lot of planning to move. But you can get them for practically free if you're willing to move them.
But the largest challenge is helping people with less lab experience get up to speed on laboratory practices and experimental design. I still don't have a good solution for this, so its an experiment in itself.
Me: What types of projects have you and the LA Biohacker lab team worked on?
Tobin: Mostly microbiology and synthetic biology related. Right now we have one person propagating carob trees through tissue culture. One student studying telomere lengths in protozoans. One person doing CRISPR in plants. And many others.
Me: What do you see as the future for biohacking in the LA and globally?
Tobin: Locally I hope to grow our lab more. Not necessarily in physical size but in people and more advanced projects and capabilities. I think globally we'll start to see labs appear in more and more cities. Right now they are mainly in large metropolitan areas but I think that's going to change.