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June 22, 2016

Visualizing the Invisible| Genspace | Callie Clayton | BFA Textiles ’17

by Callie Clayton


Tucked away on the east(ish) half of the seven floor of an unassuming building in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, a maker-space that happens to be the world’s first government compliant community biotech biosafety level 1 laboratory is located. Opened in 2010, Genspace, (gen- latin: “that which produces”) acts as a public educational resource and facility through genetic engineering classes, workshops, talks and as a production space for anyone who wants to be a member of the lab.

For the past two weeks and coming six, I have and will continue to collaborate, learn and make through investigating how community bio-labs such as Genspace (STEM to STEAM style teaching and learning environments) allow for clear discussion of the social and ethical possibilities and considerations within synthetic biology. Through this research, I’ll be designing visual graphics in digital pattern and educational forms communicating in a broader perspective the innocuous processes and positive potential of synthetic biology projects in relation to regulation. My goals for these visuals are to generate more public understanding and knowledge around community bio-labs and genetic engineering in order to encourage their establishment through STEAM programs and increase accessibility to these spaces and education.

First arriving in the lab, I was at once surprised and comforted by the mismatch of computers, papers and lab equipment on the main table outside of the two wet labs, a space arranged in a very fluid, “maker-space”-esque manner. In talking with one of the directors, it had been decided that I would observe all the courses: CRISPR and Genetic Engineering Introductory courses, observe the iGEM (International Genetic Engineering Machine) Competition lab work activity and weekly workshops and talks throughout my two months here. Starting this upcoming (third week) I’m participating in one of the Genetic Engineering introductory courses in line with (my determined) developmental steps of involvement for my research. For the coming weeks, I will continue to participate and further collaborations with different lab course teachers at Genspace to develop educational visuals simply explaining lab protocols for advanced processes such as CRISPR. Additionally, my participation in terms of addressing discussions of ethics associated with synthetic biology for art and design versus or in accordance also with scientific research has already become apparent. For these upcoming 6 weeks, a long term goal of mine is to collaborate with lab instructors in order to further develop educational discussion and content around differing and similar considerations of ethics and synthetic biology  when present in art and design and scientific research.

Re-reading what I have just written, the framework and simple actuality of what my place, role and actions within this lab space are sounds so precise and defined. It’s quite hilarious (please excuse my dry humor-warning: it will most definitely emerge multiple times within each blog post).  There are an infinity of angles, thoughts and ideas cultivated each and every subsequent day in the lab.


Examples ( to develop thoughts and observations of research on through writing, visuals and text) :

  • Ways biotech regulations come out of experimentation (or don’t).
  • Benefits from lack of regulation of citizen science in the United States and nonpartisan policy groups based research on citizen science projects’ development.
  • Scaling of perspectives in protocol vs. effects/ meaning of protocol.
  • Timelines of growth rates/lab work compared to levels of public concern and lack of understanding around certain GE (genetic engineering) techniques.
  • Media interpretations versus reality.
  • Metaphorical examples of how specific research on one environmental change affecting one organism affects a myriad of other, scaled-out ethical considerations and organisms.
  • Translating research protocol/process explorations as a design process with the commonality of “making/tinkering” for the experimental sake and developing product / art as a result- ideas of “playful making.”
  • How does the act of biology lab research and connotations of science reflect emotion based connotations associated with the lack of touch?
  • Exploration of ethical understandings of the word: contamination or trust through the context of synthetic biology.
  • Human harm to lab organisms- enlarging microscopic processes.
  • How do we make design decisions in the context of genetic engineering and so are all choices an act of design? Where limitations come into play?
  • Innocuous quality of genetic engineering protocols + application.
  • How GE quantitatively finds difference in the small scale yet in doing so, discovers humanity’s similarity in the large scale. ex: Sequencing your DNA, your mitochondrial DNA which is passed down maternally, is extracted; meaning that all of humanity is linked by one “Mitochondrial DNA Eve,” the originator of the DNA extracted in this protocol.

What is most worthy of my attention and focus? As a designer, I have a different perspective, what aspects of my interpretations of these lab protocols, classes and design processes is most unique and what are the opportunity costs of choosing one focus over the other?

These past two weeks have been an immersive experience of taking notes on as much as possible, absorbing, learning and understanding specific protocols, techniques such as:


  1. iGEM Competition Activity: Isolating tardigrades (microscopic invertebrates with four pairs of stout legs that live usually in water or damp moss, also called “water bears”-how cute haha) so to test different food sources to increase efficiency of their growth using techniques such as CRISPR (most recent form of highly specific gene editing). Ultimately, a goal of this project is to extract a gene linked with retaining water in drought-like conditions.
  2. Ellie Irons, interdisciplinary artist and educator (around art and environmental science) who is actually a teacher at Brown University(!) came to do a workshop on foraging for invasive weeds in the urban jungle in order to make watercolor pigments. It was exciting to see the combination of botany, chemistry in terms of oxidation color changes when crushing petals and alum additions and art all in one. Her work at:
  3. I went to an event called “Sketches for Science” upon recommendation from a colleague at Genspace (Karlijn is doing research on biomaterial growth with algae growth under different environmental conditions and kombucha scoby growth ) at a space in Manhattan. The event was led by The Leading Strand a collaboration between neuroscientists and designers to communicate science. Observing a mix of people with an academia background in the sciences, designers and friends, interacting and suggesting what scientific term the two artists of the night (one with a degree in neuroscience, the other design) should visualize in a 10 minute time-period, I feel I began to get a taste of what it means to “accurately” visualize: There is no such thing as fully “accurate” it seems. Everything is and always will be somewhat subjective perhaps and that’s a positive insight into the realm of visualizing science. Zoom into a process or image and it may seem to necessitate exactitude (ex: edit and deletion of specific codons) but zoom out and the application of this exactitude is subjective and unlimited. And is the big picture what is (often- I’m stressing often, not always by any means) most important?
  4. CRISPR Class and Workshop: CRISPR is (since 2013) the most recent and accurate (arguably depending on whether it’s a prokaryote-plasmids still work best or eukaryote-CRISPR works better) targeted genome editing tool. CRISPR was discovered as part of adaptive immunity in select bacteria, allowing organisms to respond to and eliminate invasive bacteria/viruses. CRISPR is made up of a number of genes (“Cas”) including a protein called Cas9 which is programmed by small RNA (RNA= “DNA Photocopier” which creates multiple copies of a piece of DNA in the form of messenger RNA which is then made into proteins by the cell’s ribosomes) to cleave DNA. When Cas9 is fed a specific sequence of sgRNA (single-stranded guide RNA) a double-stranded break of the target DNA eliminates a specified section of DNA. After this break in DNA has been made, the cell wants to repair itself using either NHEJ (Non Homologous End Joining) or HDR (Homology Directed Repair). Using HDR, a template of DNA desired to replace a mutation or other DNA sequence (what was cut out) is replicated by the cell when repairing the break in the DNA. Meaning the cell has repaired itself using the DNA sequence template you/scientist/whoever put into the cell and is viewed as a natural DNA break repair. This means that CRISPR leaves no trace; one can not test whether an organism has or hasn’t been genetically manipulated using CRISPR! (Note: other site-specific editing technologies working in a similar way yet are detectable with varying levels of effectiveness and are still used for a variety of function include: restriction enzymes modifying plasmids to be put into DNA of course, site-specific recombinase technology, zinc-finger nucleases, etc) Observing and learning about the technology, tool of CRISPR I’m realizing the importance of pattern, matching and visuals in order to understand each step of the process and matching the act of pipetting DNA into a solution with the purpose of that action being making guide RNA. During each class, we’ve had some exciting discussion about ethics associated with use of technologies such as CRISPR. In the case of Germline genetic modification (a form of genetic engineering which involves changing genes in eggs, sperm, or very early embryos meaning that successive generations inherit the same modified genes) what true differences exist between that act of genetic modification and invitro fertilization using selected sperm and the act of two partners naturally and/or “naturally” choosing one another because of subconscious and conscious inclinations to certain physical and personality traits? As one of the course instructors said:

“Lack of change and the maintenance of something in its “natural” state is unnatural”

so could that mean, resisting evolution of the body or health through technology is               striving to maintain the “natural” that has already developed into a different form of          ‘further evolved “natural”‘? Where and what are the ‘limitations’ we create for                       ourselves in this design problem? CRISPR information: New England Bio-Labs

5. Dr. David Putrino, P.T., Ph.D. gave a talk through “Knows Science ” a non-for-profit education and advocacy organization working to share the latest scientific discoveries with the public about the human brain’s responses during performance in relation to endurance. He spoke also about a number of research projects and collaborations to crowd-solve previously insurmountable healthcare issues using assistive technology done through Not Impossible Labs. The necessity of designers, design collaboration in each of these projects, such as “The Eyewriter” designed for an ALS patient, was emphasized by David himself when he said:

“Medicine must look outside of technology to know how to make people better.”

The necessity of designers niche-ly understanding the patient’s illness demonstrates the importance of fluid integration of design and science education. More about his work and presentation can be found at the “Knows Science” site.

      6. The vast amount of content I’ve been learning / thinking / exposed to means I don’t think I can share it all in this one blog post! Quick snippet of other topics are: 3A Assembly, Sequencing my DNA, and reading research reports on Citizen Science and regulation from Commons Lab – to better understand regulation in relation to Community Biolabs and Citizen Science I definitely recommend looking at this site and reading some of the articles.


For this week and the coming ones, I plan on really focusing in on my collaboration with one of the instructors on making visuals for the process of using CRISPR in the lab, focus in on certain questions / thoughts, ethics discussion points for courses, visual systems for connecting lab steps and their effect and continue writings / text associating lab processes with design decisions. I’ll be helping out with the exhibition of Biodesign Challenge work done by university students later this week and am excited to see how design and science has manifested in their work! Looking forward to sharing more work, thoughts and updates in a week- also, look out for updates on my tumblr blog with more photos and posts Callie Clayton.

Quote for thought by a Genspace instructor:

“Form follows function, however the form is the function so if you’ve broken the form, then you have no function.”

my regards,





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