A successful experiment: HMC BioMakerspace cultivates connection through speaker series

A composite of three images shows a biology laboratory set up with various testing equipments, research supplies, and STEM machinery.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, HMC’s BioMakerspace served as a biology lab for students to conduct research. Now the students of BioMakerspace are hosting a series of talks that explore the intersections between science and social issues. (Courtesy: BioMakerspace)

Long before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Harvey Mudd College’s BioMakerspace was a student-run biology laboratory. Stocked with materials and inquisitive minds, the space was a hotspot for students to conduct research and lab work.

Now, the students of the BioMakerspace are expanding their exploration of the intersections between biology and social issues through a new speaker series. Throughout the fall semester, the HMC BioMakerspace is hosting a series of biology-related talks with biology professors from across the 5Cs. 

From science, technology, engineering and mathematics-focused students to those interested in modern social problems, the speakers will each approach their topic through a wide lens. Director of operations Tom Fu HM ’22 said that this unique construction is used in order to make the series more approachable for all students.

“Not only biology students can participate in this kind of conversation,” Fu said. “Other students who are interested in science or all students interested in the impact of science research can participate in this conversation to know more about in what ways research is done.”

Fu, along with director of projects Lucy Paddock HM ’22 and director Roya Amini-Naieni HM ’22, crafted the series as an outreach method for the BioMakerspace and for professors eager to connect with more students.

The series began Oct. 4 with Pomona College professor Rachel N. Levin and her discussion of the science of transgender identity. On Oct. 14, HMC professor Danae Schulz explored “sleeping sickness” and potential treatments. The next speaker event will take place Oct. 25 with Elizabeth Orwin from the engineering department of HMC.

Part of the goal of the speaker series is to prompt first-years to do their own research and networking. The BioMakerspace team realized how difficult it was for first-years to engage with their professors on a more personal level without the classroom as a medium. 

“I personally would just walk into my professor’s lab and ask him if he needed anything done or ask him questions. But they can’t do that right now,” Amini-Naieni said. “So we’re trying to kind of alleviate the issues associated with that and help people know what’s out there and what things they can do and open a line of communication between professors and students as well.”

Similar to dealing with an unexpected turn of events in an experiment, the BioMakerspace leadership found ways to adapt and rework their strategy for the fall semester. Fu has begun conducting experiments in his wet lab — where chemicals and other biological matter can be analyzed and tested by using various liquids — that he set up at home; a student could reach out to the BioMakerspace and consequently have their experiment run through the wet lab as a substitute for the lab on campus. 

Additionally, various engagement methods are being planned by the group to aid students in their biology pursuits. The space plans to host a journal club that instructs students how to read scientific journals and investigate other students’ research. The team also hopes to host an “Idea-Thon,” a productive, interactive collaboration environment where students can get together and share ideas for biology projects. 

The space has also been focusing on specific subject matter to explore, with researching pertaining to data taking the lead. 

“Even though this semester is online, computational biology is still such a fruitful field, and you don’t need a lab to get important biological work done,” Paddock said. 

Through adaptation and innovation, the impact of the BioMakerspace has not lessened or faltered in magnitude. And through this adaptation, unexpectedly, great consequences can emerge.

“We also think that it’s good to have this biologists’ community in the 5Cs, which we didn’t quite have before this speaker series,” Fu said. “I want to connect with biologists outside of the 5Cs.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Tom Fu HM ’22 had the wet lab in his home. Roya Amini-Naieni HM ’22 has the lab in her home. TSL regrets this error. 

This article was last updated Saturday, Oct. 16, 2020 at 11:38 a.m.

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