Along with the iGEM project’s development we dealt with a limited access to centrifuges, electrophoresis systems and transilluminators, all essential equipments to molecular biology techniques. It was very difficult to plan in advance our experiments due to the restricted access to some laboratories, since most equipments at USP are responsibility of different professors and researchers. Thus, building our own hardware using a laser cutter, electronic components and 3D printer had a great impact in the execution of our project. Our do-it-yourself centrifuge gave us independence and autonomy to perform the routine experiments, like a simple DNA extraction, gel purification or PCR purification as well, all indispensable steps for basic cloning.
The continuous use of the equipments also increases chances of something going wrong, like in one of our electrophoresis runs when a power supply burned out and we got in critical situation since its repairment is very expensive and would take a long time to get it done. Once again, we were compelled to build our own version of a lab device, which was achieved by the cooperation with the Hardware Livre, a group about open hardware at USP. Other equipments are being developed like a transilluminator and an electrophoresis system.
Then we decided to organize an event that we could interact with other people, teaching them how to make a centrifuge and they could also suggest improvements to the next versions. Our event had support of a company called Lotan and a group dedicated to entrepreneurship at Universidade de São Paulo, named NEU. The purpose of the event was to promote knowledge exchange and it was achieved. People of different areas were present and contributed a lot with their opinions!
After this interesting experience, we went to other events about digital fabrication like the FAZ festival which was held at the Red Bull Station in São Paulo and gathered a very diverse group of people interested in the maker culture. Our team presented the hardware using digital fabrication techniques in a lecture and demonstration session. The event represented a singular opportunity to share our experience, from the motivations that led us to built our own lab equipments to the context of the iGEM competition and the social impact of our project. FAZ gave us the chance to reach out for designers, architects and artists, a public we had not impacted before. Their insights and questions enriched our experiences, it was great to know how different backgrounds lead to different ways of approaching the same thing.
In order to impact the academic and educational communities our team submitted the project of the low cost centrifuge and electrophoresis system to the Brazilian edition of the FabLearn Conference, held by USP and the Stanford University at the campus of USP. There is much in common with the iGEM principles, including the protagonism and empowering of researchers and students. We talked to some high school students who built a syringe pump using Arduino and they were planning to build a centrifuge as well. This situation was a two-way path: their tips will certainly save us a lot of time when we were building a pump while our experience in building a centrifuge will certainly be useful to them. We perceived a great interest from those who came to see our project, including teachers, professors, high school and undergrad students who also encouraged us to provide a repository with our designs and projects so they could reproduce the devices themselves. This acceptance reveals that the practical impact of our project goes beyond research, transforming education and learning.
By all these experiences with open hardware, inside and outside the lab, we could see how essential it was for the project as a whole. Moreover, we generated awareness about our contribution to the progress of science and education.