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Be the Change

by Tyson Anderson

The Importance of Doing It Ourselves Here in the U.S. 

Like many other countries, the United States is rife with health disparities between the rich and the poor. Aside from the disparities based on pure economics, problems include poor access to vaccines, especially for hepatitis and childhood diseases like measles; inadequate research on diseases that primarily impact upon the poor, such as toxocariasis, toxoplasmosis and even common parasitic infections; and, of course, rising health care costs that weigh disproportionately on those without independent means. One issue that hits harder than most is simply not having access to healthy food. The US government has itself issued studies on “food deserts,” areas of the country with little access to proper food and nutrition. And even if food is available, that doesn’t imply that it can be considered proper nutrition.  The sad truth is that it is far cheaper to get fat in America on empty calories than it is to eat a balanced diet.

Solving Health Problems In Our Own Backyards

Instead of waiting for governmental change, such as Michelle Obama’s Step It Up Intiative, Americans are meeting their own food supply issues with local farming projects. Windowfarms, for example, is a community that uses simple botanical practices to turn seemingly infertile urban space into a healthy, sustainable and green food supply. Rather than relying on access to private or community rooftops to gather sunlight and water, their method allows for nutritious plants to be grown with no more than a window. It works by using a pump to recycle water and nutrients through a system of hanging, vertical planters (that can be made from something as simple as a recycled bottle). The end result is not only a locally grown and nutritious food supply, but a reduced carbon footprint and reliance on outside means of sustenance.
While Windowfarms is small-scale by design, other DIYbio initiatives are aimed at larger questions like the mechanisms of spreading disease. The BioWeatherMap project is a citizen-scientist-led project that aims to determine how the microbial life around us spreads and changes. Bioweathermap gives contributors without lab coats or Ph.D.s  and opportunity to engage in the project, allowing everyday people to participate in research with potentially far-reaching effects. Participants are encouraged to attend BioWeatherMap events in their city, where they are provided with tools and instructions for collecting specimens from approved surfaces, along with the date, time, geolocation information and any other relevant data. The event organizer then collects swabs and sends them to a sequencing facility, where it will be tested to give an accurate account of biodiversity across a variety of locations. Finally, the data is published in an open repository for the benefit of all.

The Limits of DIY As A Solution

Despite these examples of resourcefulness and drive, Joseph Jackson – the man behind the LavaAmp,BioCurious Labs and many other DIYBio and Open Science intiatives – seems frustrated at the stagnation of the DIYbio movement in America.In a recent interview, Jackson candidly reminded BetterBio that in order to work on DIYBio here in the United States, you face all sorts of very well-intentioned hurdles, such as Homeland Security visits, fingerprinting and background checks. Not to mention, issues with guardian accompaniment for children, which can prevent DIYBio educators from sharing the love of science with children still young enough to appreciate it. “We’re looking at massive disruptions in education. I don’t think we’re going to solve all of these problems at once.” Community colleges have integrated DIYBio research into curricula, but, as Jackson says, some are “sort of scammy, as well – for example, they’ll do clean tech certification for what turns out to be a tech bubble.”All of these barriers serve to erode not only the will but the pocketbooks of those that want to get involved. What has been left is a hardcore grouping of people, those with disposable income and some training, willing to be involved. “First, we’re going to have to draw from people with some disposable income, retirees, ‘bio-baby-boomers’ – this is an obvious point of engagement for them.”Jackson also reminds us that few of our country’s health problems will be solved through access to research tools, alone: “DIYBio is not going to solve the social justice problem here.” He argues that part of the problem is in the minds of funders and researchers: “It’s likely psychological – it’s more glamorous to help in locations where you’re more appreciated. People donate to Haiti, different disasters that strike, it is a cycle of awareness, has to do with how we engage with doing charity. It’s not efficient, maybe, it’s probably a tourism kind of thing, but it’s a longstanding problem.”
Unfortunately, Jackson and his team at the Open Science Initiative face limits on time (“we haven’t gotten to the stage of building partnerships with more established projects yet”) and staff (“we’re lacking a real community engagement point person or strategist right now in the organization”). Given the limitations on thought leaders’ capacity, it seems possible that without a large grassroots movement towards broader social justice, DIYbio will remain a marginalized, closeted movement showcasing the very best of both scientific and human intention. The final message that leaves, ironically enough, is that it is all still Do-It-Yourself.