Normative Design

Stepping into DIYbio and Synthetic Biology at ScienceHack - Normative

Stepping into DIYbio and Synthetic Biology at ScienceHack

Our first foray into DIYbio and synthetic biology at ScienceHack, a weekend hackathon in Haliburton, Ontario.

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Two weeks ago, we were invited to spend the weekend in Haliburton at Synbiota’s first ever ScienceHack. Along with a group of artists and scientists* we were going to learn about synthetic biology, contribute to open source scientific research, and build DNA sequences to hopefully find a pathway that would produce a lot of violacein – a compound made by tropical soil-dwelling bacteria that has shown promise as a cancer treatment.

We were excited, intrigued, and – upon seeing the big yellow school bus sent to pick us up – a little unsure about what we were getting ourselves into.

On the first evening we split into small groups with a scientist in each. We got a crash course on genetics and protein pathways, and then set out to design and build our own pathways using both the “Genomikon: Violacein Factory” kit and Synbiota platform.

Sketching out pathways

With Synbiota’s software, we dragged and dropped the enzymes to create the sequence that we were then going to build out. After a process of sketching ideas, mocking up pathways, and writing hypotheses, we were ready to start building!

Creating our DNA sequences on Synbiota
Creating our DNA sequences on Synbiota


Kyrie Pipetting!
Kyrie Pipetting!


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More pipetting!


Our enzymes, sitting pretty
Our enzymes, sitting pretty

We were about twenty individuals, hands covered in blue latex gloves (safety first!) and armed with pipettes and tubes, jostling around a small round table in an arts school deep in the Haliburton forest. The music was pumping 90s R&B, and with a side tables piled high with hummus, pitas, fruit, and beer, we were throwing around terms like “pipette” or “ligation” with a strange sense of confidence.

The night stretched long, and at midnight we were forced to vacate the school. Not quite finished, we loaded our delicate bacteria, incubator, and boxes of gloves onto the bus and headed back to complete our bacterial transformation in one of our hotel rooms. Jammed in between the beds and the mini-fridge, we heat-shocked our bacteria in the hotel ice bucket. It was a surreal moment.

Group bacterial transformation in the hotel ice bucket. (Photo credit: Adam Pickard)
Group bacterial transformation in the hotel ice bucket (Photo credit: Adam Pickard)

While waiting for our bacteria, we spent our free time on a variety of other activities. We held an “unconference” where we explored bioethics, security and risk related to synthetic biology, 3D printing on Mars, patterns in juggling (with live demonstration!), and even did a Google Hangout with Rob Carlson. We also had a chance to do some snowshoeing through the Haliburton forest and taste some maple wine (yes, that’s exactly what it sounds like!) from a nearby sugarbush. Every few hours, we would excitedly check in on our bacteria, looking for bacterial colonies and the purple hue characteristic of violacein.

Fireside discussion about bioethics
Fireside discussion about bioethics

The weekend was both exciting and remarkable for many reasons. Most impressive was the wildly successful and seamless integration of a diverse set of people: in a matter of hours, we were transformed from individual experts and practitioners in assorted fields into cohesive and passionate teams of DIY biologists and science hackers. The ability of everyone to connect and learn was a powerful experience, and over the course of just one weekend we were able to challenge each other and grow.

Snowshoeing through the sugarbush


Saying goodbye!
Saying goodbye!

Returning to work on Monday, we were hungry for more. We wanted to find a way to bring the excitement and energy from the weekend into the studio and into the projects we’re working on. It struck us that there are strong parallels between design and DIYbio, and we knew there was an opportunity to bring some of the scientific approaches and curiosity into our studio. We’re going to be sharing our thoughts on how to do that in our next post.

*Also in attendance were researchers, journalists, technologists, professors, and students, and oh-so-many-hybrids of those things.

Check out more about why we’re excited about the work Synbiota is doing:


Next Up: What can a design studio learn from #ScienceHack?

Heather McGaw is now a Normative alumni. For more information on this project please email