Still in Montreal, Quebec! We are now with Sarah Choukah, an active member of the biohacking community Bricobio and PhD student in communications. She takes some of her time to tell us about her passions for open source history in software development and, now, in biology.
Could you introduce yourself?
While I was an undergrad in communications at the University of Montreal I got interested in the technical and social aspects of free and open source software development and its history. When I started digging into the cultural history of hardware and software hacking and I got hooked. I was, and still is, fascinated by what hacker cultures can offer to challenge and renew political and economic logics of production and intellectual property. I also started learning to program by myself, first with scripting languages such as HTML/CSS then with Processing and later on, a bit of PHP and MySQL, and most lately but steadily, Python. I got very fond of electronics too while tinkering with circuits, sensors or microprocessors such as the Arduino, minicomputers like the Raspberry Pi and chips such the 555 timer IC.
But the real “click” came in 2008 when I first read about George Church and his open source genomics project. I thought the idea of extending open source software philosophy to biology was a clever step forward. I realized something very important was going on and that the convergence between software and “wetware” (DNA) codes was only the start of it. Then I discovered biohacking and DIYbiology as concrete ways to take part in these developments. Since then I stayed in NYC in 2012 -2013 and learned most of what I know about biolab work at Genspace, first as an iGEM team member and then as a committee and lab member working on different projects and helping to organize events. I’ve manned booths during special events such as Maker Faire UK 2013 and helped organize demos and talks for diverse audiences. My time at Genspace, and since then, can also be described as a continuous crash-course in biology related topics. That involved reading scientific papers, going through parts of textbooks, lab practice and a lot of googling. I also learned to brew during a workshop on biodesign given by William Myers and have been interested in aspects of biochemistry in cooking and fermentation as well.
What does biohacking represent for you?
My personal take on it is that biohacking, as a hacking practice, involves finding clever or unusual solutions to all kinds of problems we encounter in life. Life itself, to quote philosopher Gilbert Simondon, is a solution to certain problems just as, once “solved”, other problems are brought into being. As a biohacker, an academic and a researcher, I find that biohacking is similarly a changing and ongoing set of answers proposed to various kinds of economic, political and social problems felt by those involved in and out of the life sciences today. Biohacking, in that sense, is not as new as it seems. The works of bioartists Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, who cofounded the Tissue Culture and Art Project in 1996, or that of the Critical Art Ensemble (founded in 1986) are also engaging and unconventional in that they help us rethink our most basic ideas about wider, more abstracts concepts such as “life”, “biology” and biotechnology overall.
I’m also engaged in it because it allows me to think differently about our everyday, seemingly mundane relations with the world around us: hacking and biohacking can help us pay more attention to the beauty of gesture, to the unique character that comes out of original involvements with the sciences, with technologies and techniques of all kinds. We have an implicit tendency to lump all kinds of intricate processes together in the general category of technology when we say that we “hate it”, or that we feel overwhelmed by the promises and dangers new biotech represents. Biohacking helps in addressing those issues differently, from a more hands-on, engaged point of view, from starting small and being playful with concepts and tools we would otherwise take for granted or don’t know enough about.
What do you expect from a biohackerspace?
This might sound trivial, but I like that a biohackerspace is a place where it’s good to just “be”. That it’s the result of members’ efforts to make the space welcoming, inviting and fun. I’ve met wonderful people at Genspace and Bricobio that I don’t think I would have met otherwise. People who are involved in work that might seem unrelated with biology at first: designers, artists, programmers, engineers, architects, journalists, entrepreneurs, students, parents and of course scientists (as well as students in social sciences, in biochemistry, molecular or synthetic biology, evolutionary biology and so on). I also like that they’re happy to be able to connect with others as well and have the opportunity to collaborate together on projects.
When I started taking classes at Genspace I also discovered a nearby hackerspace in Brooklyn, NYC Resistor, where I also loved to hang out and work on projects. You can meet equally amazing people there. In both spaces I got to appreciate how helpful people can be when you show genuine interest in what they do and how exciting it can be when you don’t just talk about doing things but actually go on, try and make things happen. The spaces are very good motivators, they help in inhibiting self-doubt or worries over an idea not working out because the law of the land is that a lot of them turn out not to work as predicted in any case. A biohackerspace should a place where you’re allowed to experiment, make mistakes and learn from those mistakes in a supportive environment.
Being in a biohackerspace, for this reason, helps me confront the constraints that shape a project or idea into being more directly. It helps in being more realistic about expectations I have of myself as well as others. Being active in a biohackersapce is challenging in many ways. Not all of us have the time and ressources to devote to projects, or to learn more about biology for instance. Getting good equipment or hacking the necessary hardware to get there also takes up a lot of energy, and all of this needs funds in order to work. But again that’s also the beauty of it: that biohacking and biohackerspaces can get us to see what it takes to do biotech outside of the places where we expect it to be produced. In doing that we don’t reinvent the wheel. We try to find ways to adapt our current engagements with institutions such as academia, biotech industries and corporations, governments and the law, as well as the political economy that helps connecting the dots between those institutions.
>> Picture: Dailylaurel (CC)