DIY biology projects - What's your motivation?

My oldest daughter's favorite sweatshirt is one from the Seattle Children's Theatre Drama School, with the motto, "What's your motivation?"

I was reminded of motivation the other day, as I talked about projects with the DIY biology group. It's pretty clear that you can't pick a project without knowing whether you're motivated by the discovery or the application.

Many of the people I've known in academia, either researchers or science educators, are motivated by the prospect of discovery. They either want to discover something new or help their students make discoveries. Inquiry-based learning is a great example where this philosophy appears in science education. And, in research institutes, this is what basic research is all about.

In contrast, the people I've known who work in the biotechnology and software industries are motivated more strongly by the idea of making something.

Biotechnology, after all, is just biology with a practical application.

Figure 1. GloFish®, from, originally engineered to detect pollution.

These goals, the thrill of discovery or the joy of making something, aren't mutually exclusive, but the consequence of choosing one or the other has a big impact on the way you work. And many people do view science through one lens or the other.

If your motivation is to discover new things, there is a whole world of DIY projects out there that don't require any kind of fancy equipment beyond a computer and an internet connection. If you want to make something, your requirements will get more complicated and even though I think it's really interesting, I'm still skeptical about whether anything useful will be accomplished.

Many of the people in the Seattle DIY group are interested in synthetic biology, so I imagine the group will choose a more applied type of project. I like both kinds of projects, but I think discovery projects have a higher chance of success. It's far easier (less time, less equipment, simpler facilities, less use of plastics, fewer biological hazards, and less chemical waste) for kids to discover that restaurants are serving you the wrong fish than it is for an amateur biologist to engineer something useful in their spare time.

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