In the last few years, the bio-community around the world has its own conference. Justice went to the Global Community Bio Summit this October, and is kind enough to share his thoughts on the event.
Guest post by Justice T. Walker
Community biology—a movement that seems to democratize life sciences through access and diversity—has grown over the last decades. This is reflected in a thriving population of community labs, like Genspace and BioCurious in the US, and Freak Lab in Thailand and Kumasi Hive in Ghana, and Co-Lab in Denmark—to name a few—that are popping up across the world. I’m reminded that community labs may be to 2019 what computer clubhouses were to the 1980s, when computers were becoming accessible to private citizens and shifting the way we interacted and communicated with technology. Community labs, too, provide an entry point for everyday people—the community—to access, tinker, and play with biology!
Recognizing the potential of community labs to democratize scientific knowledge on a global scale—from what I’ve heard—folks like David Kong, Maria Chavez, JJ Hastings, Scott Pownall, and other global leaders in the field, sought in different ways to convene the community as a way to network, share, and connect. This may have sparked the first Global Community Bio Summit in 2017 and that brought together hundreds (me included) of biology enthusiasts, educators, and researchers from a number of countries collectively striving to share in the responsibility of building an open and diverse movement for community science. I attended again a few weeks ago as the Bio Summit convened for the third time and, from my experience, the event continues to grow as it draws hundreds of participants across the globe and from every continent.
To me, the Bio Summit has maintained a clear focus on the role and responsibility of the Community Bio movement in shaping the future of life sciences research, as well as the ways biotechnology impacts art, design, ethics, culture, and the planet.
This ideology, to me, even resonates in the Community’s Statement of Purpose, which I’ve seen folks characterize as a living and evolving document created for and by the community. In that statement, it was immediately apparent to me that the initiative differs from most other related conferences in that there is no focus on bioeconomies, esoteric research agendas, or governance which dominates discourse and engagement in many other biotech communities. In my experience, the Bio Summit has always sought to remain consistent with the philosophies inherent in the community labs and participants it brings together each year.
The Bio Summit itself has evolved and has gone from a single track conference that coalesced around topics related to community lab sustainability, bioethics and security, and bioart to a themed multi-track event that now includes specialties in innovation, education, and global sustainability.
Participants can choose from a wide array of hands on workshops, lightning talks, panels, and breakout sessions that take place over the span of three days.
To better facilitate attendee participation and foster a sense of ownership over the conference, each morning opens with a one-hour block called “Hello, World!” where community members individually share their work on the main stage. The “Hello, World” practice illustrates the community’s commitment to inclusivity, and the way the group embraces each other, fostering a culture of openness and active participation. “Unconference Sessions”also emerge spontaneously over the course of the weekend, as community members begin to collaborate and create new ideas or discussions to explore.
The Bio Summit, even in structure, strives to be open and flexible, making it a messy experience that prioritizes fun and accessibility — just the kind of event one would expect from a group grown out of a movement intent on increasing access to and engagement with the life sciences.
As the Bio Summit grows, so does its effort to foster future generations of community leaders and ethical stewards. And so over the last year, a group of organizers worked together to develop a fellowship program and whose inaugural class convened in-person for the first time at the most recent Bio Summit. The purpose of this fellowship program involves a three point aim to develop future leaders that will: (1) lead related and relevant initiatives in their local community, (2) sustain and grow the Bio Summit community, and (3) identify and collaborate with future Bio Summit fellow cohorts. To achieve this, the Bio Summit fellows organizers along with Abel Cano, community organizer and lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School, put together an intensive virtual leadership program that met and trained online and in real time over the course of several months. This inaugural group of 36 fellows from across the globe represents what the future of the Bio Summit will continue to be—open, diverse, and thriving.
As emerging biotechnologies continue to shape the world in industries like medicine, agriculture, and manufacturing, the need for a globally diverse group of civically and critically informed citizens will be as important as ever. In this way, the Global Community Bio Summit represents an important and necessary part of the Life Science ecosystem as it cultivates a culture that is consistent with its core philosophies to share, include, and enable future generations. This also makes the community distinctly special—to me at least. To learn more about the Global Community Bio Summit and its participants, visit www.biosummit.org.
Justice Toshiba Walker is a science education researcher, learning scientist, and post doctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education (PennGSE), where he examines the affordances and challenges emerging biotechnologies pose for middle and high school learning. His most recent research considers how design perspectives—namely BioDesign—fit in and extend existing middle school life science active learning paradigms (e.g., inquiry and problem based learning). He also explores the ways BioDesign can support advanced literacy practices in argumentation with student groups who have little formal knowledge about synthetic biology and its various applications. For more information about Justice and his research, visit: www.justicewalker.com.