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Community lab in Baltimore aims to put science in the people’s hands

Yann Huon de Kermadec poses at BUGSS (Baltimore Underground Science Space) in East Baltimore Fri., June 26, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun staff)
Yann Huon de Kermadec poses at BUGSS (Baltimore Underground Science Space) in East Baltimore Fri., June 26, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun staff) (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun)

In an old industrial complex near Highlandtown, equipment still hums with the sound of potential. Clad in gloves, a cloth mask and a graphic T-shirt, Yann Huon de Kermadec works in a modern lab to hack the code to insulin.

Huon de Kermadec, originally from France, has been collaborating with a group of other “biohackers” for about two years to develop an alternative to life-sustaining insulin. The Open Insulin Project springs from the idea that people with diabetes should have access to affordable treatment methods outside of the traditional pharmacologic brands, which can cost hundreds of dollars per vial.

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A 30-something biochemist with a doctorate, Huon de Kermadec started working on open-source insulin in Oakland, California. But when his wife accepted a job at Johns Hopkins University, Huon de Kermadec relocated his workspace to the Baltimore Under Ground Science Space, a community lab designed with such purposes in mind.

Alternatively known as BUGSS, Baltimore’s community lab operates under the ethos that people other than university faculty and students should have access to research lab space. Do-it-yourself biologists, hobbyists, high school and home-schooled students have made BUGSS their official headquarters and classroom as they pursue advanced projects without much red tape involved.

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“Science should be accessible to everyone and benefit the community directly,” said Lisa Scheifele, BUGSS’ executive director and a board member since its inception about 10 years ago. “If you’re not a professional scientist, you have very little input on what gets funded and what’s important.”

Though shared labs and DIY scientists have been gaining traction for years — seeking low-cost or open-sourced alternatives for everything from prosthetic limbs to Internet access — the coronavirus pandemic has helped cement BUGSS’ importance, Scheifele said.

More people are tuning into research and development and looking to participate in the fight against COVID-19. Private companies and individuals have made masks, face shields, ventilators and sanitizers without the guidance or assistance of manufacturers, sometimes working out of their homes or repurposing their factories.

Imagine the potential of every city, Scheifele said, if each one had its own high-tech, cooperative-style lab.

“We’re not the same organization as we were in 2012, and I think a lot of the reasons for that are because we are community driven, not top down,” she said.

Scheifele, also an associated professor in Loyola University’s biology department, said community labs have sprung up all over the world, with about 25 active in the United States.

They do not compete with universities and other research laboratories; rather, BUGSS members and mentors aim to carve out their own niches.

In its relatively short lifespan, BUGSS has housed a number of innovative projects, some of which have gone on to be published in journals and acquired funding. Individuals and teams have studied producing affordable estrogen supplements for people seeking to undergo gender transitions; making furniture or structural materials out of mushroom tissue; and using biological material for art projects.

The lab also hosts public lectures, classes and seminars led by graduate students, professors and even high school students looking to share their research. It’s held sessions on handling mental health during the pandemic, detecting racial disparities in medicine, and explaining the possible uses of CBD, a compound derived from cannabis plants but lacking the psychoactive properties of THC.

After the coronavirus pandemic shuttered indoor and public spaces in March, the talks moved online, which Scheifele said allowed better sharing and archiving abilities that adhere to the lab’s mission of providing publicly available resources.

“We’re part of the open science movement, and if we don’t share things right away [it’s because] we’re simply too busy to put them up online. But that’s our principle,” she said.

BUGSS relies on membership fees, lecture and class admission tickets, grants and donated equipment — much of it top-of-the-line if secondhand. Huon de Kermadec, for example, pays about $100 a month for the lab space, which he uses multiple times per week for several hours at a time.

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Another member, Alex Misiaszek, a rising high school senior at St. Albans School in Washington, started pursuing independent research at the lab in seventh grade and has since published his findings about using genetically engineered E. coli to produce a peptide that can treat cancer. He has also worked on BUGSS’ iGEM team, a group of high school students who compete annually in the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition.

Misiaszek, from Northern Virginia, originally sought lab space to use for a science fair project. He said he “knew nothing” about the work involved in publishing a paper when he first looked into BUGSS. But now, due to the guidance of his mentors, he hopes to pursue a career in science or medicine.

“There’s only so much you can get in a school environment, and science is more than teachers’ notes and taking a test on the material,” he said. “BUGSS’ most important asset is its ability to educate people in a way you don’t get through school.”

For 17-year-old Shantika Bhat, BUGSS has allowed her to evolve from a research assistant to an autonomous scientist. The rising senior at the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute never considered pursuing an idea from scratch until she applied to work with iGEM.

“What BUGSS does is really amazing because they’re able to introduce science to even the youngest kids,” said Bhat, who was planning to deliver a lecture series about obesity, diabetes and bioethics specifically for children before the coronavirus swept into Maryland. “This is really student driven. We do have mentors, obviously, but nobody’s over one another.”

BUGSS advisers and executive board members come from a variety of educational and professional backgrounds and volunteer their time. Often, they have ties to universities or elite research institutions, but they also can be amateurs willing to learn alongside their students.

Andy Johnston, who works in the information technology department at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, serves as a mentor for the lab’s Inner Harbor project, which seeks to catalog all life species in the city’s watershed. The Bolton Hill resident takes particular interest in the work as a “citizen scientist” seeking to understand all forms of life — and how climate and pollution could alter an ecosystem over time.

“The Inner Harbor project was basically someone’s question and now we’re working on answering it,” he said.

The project, coordinated in collaboration between BUGSS, the National Aquarium and the University System of Maryland’s Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology, collects samples of organisms that accumulate on plastic discs in the harbor and then sequences the DNA. Johnston analyzes the DNA sequence data to identify which species the DNA comes from — and therefore which species live in the Harbor — while researchers at the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology provide overall direction and oversee the workflow and process.

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“We’re actually helping the institutions as much as the other way around,” he said.

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Johnston said few of the project’s mentors have careers in life sciences — but the beauty of BUGSS lies in its openness to all skillsets. (The only common element essential for participants to share is an appreciation of Di Pasquale’s pizza, he added).

Above all, he hopes those he mentors walk away with a lifelong appreciation of the field.

“They’re all going to grow up to see what science can do, what it can’t possibly do, and what it feels like to be doing it,” Johnston said.

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