By Pia-Kelsey O’Neill
“Will someone who knows about DNA make the monsters that we see in cartoons?” a young girl worried aloud at the Zhejiang Museum of Science and Technology (ZJSTM), located in Hangzhou, China. Hers was among the many thoughtful questions we received last week during a presentation that Oliver Medvedik and I gave on the past, present, and future of DIY biology. The audience of about two hundred included middle school students and adult professionals from the city.
We had been invited to Hangzhou by the non-profit organization, Zhejiang Association of Science and Technology (ZAST), a branch of the national Association of Science and Technology (AST). Enacted by the legislature of the People’s Republic of China, AST is expected to create programs that will popularize scientific knowledge. Bing Zhu, Deputy Director of the International Department of ZAST, first wrote to us in January explaining that a major goal of the organization is to reach especially young audiences. “Presentations of science [in China] are usually thought to be a plainly force-fed process,” he wrote. He hoped that during our visit, we could begin to introduce more hands-on methods of presenting science and art to the public, as well as to consult with the ZJSTM staff about setting up their own community biotechnology lab for teaching purposes. “We want [the public] to realize that it is ever more important that they look at science not from a single-minded point of view, but rather a cross-boundary view.” Through numerous emails, conference calls and even a personal visit to Genspace by Ms. Phyllis Tang Yifei, the Project Coordinator of ZAST, we hashed out a detailed agenda for our visit. The plan was for us to run two workshops for the ZAST staff similar to those we offer at Genspace and to hold an open seminar in order to demonstrate to the public the variety of projects-from laboratory equipment to bio design-that Genspace and others in the DIY movement have thus far created.
Upon arriving in Shanghai, Oliver and I were promptly greeted by Bing who was ready with friendly questions about each of us, our research and about Genspace. That night, he treated us to dinner at a waterfront restaurant along the Huangpu River with a spectacular view of the Bund; a sparkling cityscape just beyond our tabletop. As we were unfamiliar with the Shanghai cuisine, Bing took it upon himself to select a feast of colorful and tasty dishes, which were presented to us in the traditional Chinese manner: cold dishes first, followed by hot dishes and finally, soup. His warmth, and that of the entire ZAST staff, was maintained throughout our visit.
The headquarters of ZAST is in Hangzhou, a bustling city in the Zhejiang province, set on the idyllic West Lake. As Bing and many of the staff are natives of Hangzhou, they were very knowledgeable about the city’s long history and local culture. Between our teaching engagements, they took special care to make arrangements so that we could experience the unique attributes of the city firsthand. One afternoon we were rowed on a traditional wooden boat through the peaceful channels of the West Lake where we admired the surrounding willow trees, their long branches sweeping with the breeze along the water surface. One of the translators introduced us to the ozymandias tree, which is found throughout Hangzhou and produces tiny aromatic flowers, exuding a sweet fragrance over the entire city. We sat down another afternoon to an extended cup of Longjing tea in the hills above Hangzhou where these tea bushes are famously tended, in ancient times by monks.
On Tuesday, we went to see the ZJSTM Science Center where we would be teaching in the main hall. The enormity of the space was at first overwhelming, with an immense replica of the moon serving as the backdrop to our preparations. Our workshops went off without a hitch, thanks in no small part to the ZAST staff for providing us with crucial pieces of equipment that we had requested. Among the items were a high speed microcentrifuge, a PCR machine for amplifying DNA, a new gel imaging and documentation system for DNA analysis and a set of high quality Eppendorf pipettors, still in their boxes. The equipment was certainly much nicer than what one would find in use in many university labs.
Over the next two days Oliver and I ran the two workshops we had planned, on genotyping and neuroscience, for the museum and ZAST staff. The participants arrived early each day, in business attire, and were clearly eager to start the activities. Oliver first demonstrated how to use a pipettor and after a little practice, the group began their first hands-on experiment: to extract and genotype DNA from meat used in food. Using cow and chicken primers and meat from the local market, they successfully identified one from the other with the extracted DNA.
With another group, I held a workshop in basic neuroscience and electrophysiology. Using Spikerboxes obtained from Backyard Brains, we were able to record action potentials in Chinese fighting crickets and earthworms obtained from the local chicken coops.
On Friday morning, we then presented a series of demonstrations for two groups of fifth grade classes who were visiting the museum. We started first with our ever popular home DNA extraction procedure, which we love to apply to strawberries. Since strawberries weren’t in season we made do with oranges and tangerines which also gave great yields of fluffy chromosomal DNA. The children were first a bit reserved, though quite attentive. But soon, after asking for volunteers, the kids threw themselves into activities with enthusiasm. We finished the series with a very messy, and very fun demonstration of building Winogradsky columns, basically a self-contained ecosystem within a pop bottle using mud from lake sediments that contain naturally occurring bacteria. When we asked for help in mashing hard-boiled egg yolks (they supply the sulfur for certain microbes) into the sticky mud, such a rush of waving hands shot into the air – it was difficult to choose just a few.
Before our final “TED-style” presentation on Friday night, we had the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Li, the director of the ZJSTM Science Center, and his staff to have a deep discussion regarding the possibility of future collaborations between Genspace and ZJSTM. He reiterated to us what Bing had expressed in our initial conversations, that the museum is keen on engaging the public in science. Though the universities teach scientific topics, Mr. Li said, there is not much opportunity for the type of public exploration in science that is possible at a community space such as Genspace. He seemed quite open as to how collaborations between Genspace and the museum would progress. For the remainder of this year, they plan to set up a teaching lab within the museum and then, with our guidance next year, they hope to learn how to organize and run biological workshops, including the ones we had done during this trip. Although the concept for an interactive science museum originated with the Exploratorium in San Francisco during the late 1960’s, the Science Center in Zhejiang has a vision to take interactivity to the next level. Progressing beyond workshops, the goal would be to have longer term research projects carried out by students, schools and citizen scientists within a community laboratory situated at the museum.
Overall, it was an exceptionally positive experience for both Oliver and myself to work with the members of ZAST and ZJSTM. We’d like to thank everyone we’ve met there for such a rewarding and thought-provoking week. Many thanks also goes to Dan Grushkin for establishing our initial correspondence with ZAST. This introduction has the potential to develop into the first long term international collaboration for Genspace and we are excited to see how it progresses.