My life’s passion and purpose is to bring human civilization’s next technology revolution, biology, to the street—to the youth, to the misfits at the edges of culture, to the communities that never dreamed of biology as a medium for creative expression.
It is a historic moment. Biology as a technology is still misunderstood by the population, from the 1% to the grassroots. The infrastructure for biological engineering, from organism design tools to DNA assembly to organism implementation, is still nascent. We have an incredible opportunity, at this very moment, as the infrastructure for our bio-economy is being constructed: NOW is the time to empower the youth, to excite the misfits, to activate the marginalized. We must move the technologies for engineering biology from ivory towers and corporations to the street.
I have spent more than a decade developing technologies at the forefront of synthetic biology and organizing marginalized communities through the arts. I will combine these endeavors and bring STREET BIO to the MIT Media Lab.
I have lived a split personality much of my adult life, divided between my technical work as a synthetic biologist and my community work as an organizer and artist. For more than ten years I have developed technologies at the forefront of synthetic biology: devices for miniaturizing and automating DNA assembly, platforms for synthesizing and assaying designer proteins, and artificial organs—noses and guts, to be precise.
I've worked as the Chief Engineering Officer for an award-winning cancer diagnostics start-up, Cellanyx, and as a founding member of the synthetic biology team at MIT Lincoln Laboratory.
I successfully agitated for open-source hardware in a traditionally closed system, having obtained $50k from Lincoln CTO Bernadette Johnson to establish “Metafluidics,” an open repository of device and hardware components for microfluidics. I served as the lead writer on a $2.5 million dollar NIH-funded R01 with MIT Professor Ron Weiss (“Genetic circuits for highthroughput, multi-sensory, live cell microRNA profiling”, R01-123456789) and secured $400k of internal funding to build a state-of-the-art optics laboratory. Currently, I am principal investigator of a $700k program to build a 3D "artificial gut" for prototyping microbial communities from the human gut microbiota.
Squid tentacle. Marine Biology Lab, Woods Hole.
I've been developing high-tech tools at the cutting edge of synthetic biology for over a decade. It has been some of the most rewarding work of my life. But I have a greater vision. I want the creators to be not just be from elite institutions—I want them to be from disadvantaged, marginalized communities, like the ones I serve today.
It's a non-descript building on Mass Ave in Cambridge, with the gates usually closed, but a vibrant mural on the outside wall. That's my community center, EMW. It used to be a Chinese-language bookstore, East Meets West. My parents, Wen Kong and Jin Au Kong, both professors, purchased the building and opened the bookstore in the late 90s. My father was a professor at MIT and a master of electromagnetic wave theory, so EMW were his three favorite letters.
I should have been a peasant. My grandparents escaped China and the cultural revolution, taking with them only my father, not knowing the fate of his brothers and sisters until decades later. My uncles and aunts grew up laboring fields, while my father become the world's most famous electromagneticist. It seems so obvious now, that our human potential is infinite, while our human institutions are masterful at replacing that potential with obedience, efficiency, and replaceable parts. Spaces to deeply explore our human potential in an authentic way are few. I've taken the good fortune from my grandparents escape to build a life based on helping others realize that potential.
East Meets Words, featuring artist and activist Kaitlin Pang. February, 2015.
There is a palpable feeling when humans experience a moment of authenticity. When we share stories, a song, a rhyme—when it's done from a place of true vulnerability—suddenly we're not so isolated. We can feel intensely our common humanity.
Indeed, there is an art to creating a safe space for authentic, transformative expression. At EMW, we specialize in creating safe spaces, where experimentation and mistakes are encouraged, where you're celebrated for stepping out of your comfort zone. We want you to be the truest form of yourself you can be and to push the boundaries of who you think you can be.
I've grown up in communities of immigrants who are used to being marginalized and made to feel like they don't belong. It's especially difficult for these communities to find places that feel like home. I'm proud to say that over ten years, EMW has been that home for so many misfits and has provided that space for transformative expression that is so rare in our society.
Today, I lead a staff of seventeen members and a team of volunteers to deliver numerous community programs, exploring the spectrum of human artistic forms—from poetry to electronic music, beat-boxing to bio-hacking. All of our programming is developed and deployed through a lens of social justice, with an emphasis on serving marginalized communities. We have served thousands of misfits over the years. And at EMW, misfits are home.
EMW Team Photo. Winter Retreat, January 2015
And I love the international synthetic biology community. I've been a part of it since the field was born at MIT in the early 2000s and, over the years, have become more deeply integrated and recognized as a leader. In recent years, I've finally begun to bring my roles as a DJ, photographer, and community organizer to my technical life. My own practice of authentic expression has been deeply rewarding.
With iGEM (international Genetically Engineered Machines competition) students after DJing the final party. Hynes Convention Center, Boston, 2014.
In 2012, I was selected as an inaugural fellow for LEAP, the Synthetic Biology Leadership Excellence Accelerator Program. It was a transformational experience. For a week I was ensconced with other rising leaders in synthetic biology from academia, industry, and government, and we were charged with a singular focus: to develop synthetic biology for the public good. Not to dream up the next profitable biotechnology company, but to think broadly and deeply about how this powerful technology could help everyday people.
I had found the perfect environment—in a literal sleep-over with all of the major funders, program managers, regulators, and innovators of the field—to finally contemplate synthetic biology outside the paradigm of typical research and for-profit institutions. On our final day together, I presented a talk about how synthetic biology might be a way to realize human potential to some of the colleagues I most respect in the world.
My first slide was about empowering communities through "tools for creativity," and it was a picture of EMW.
With the current class of Synthetic Biology LEAP Fellows after visiting the Committee on Science, Technology, and Space. Capitol Hill, Washington D.C. January, 2015.
To bring engineered biology to the street, an ecosystem of democratized technologies, products, physical spaces, and mentoring is necessary. And critically, communities must be grown around these areas. It simply isn't enough to build a product or platform; thoughtful consideration must be taken to cultivate an authentic community.
In my technical career I've developed processors based on microfluidics that will likely serve as the core "biological processing units" for the future personal "biofabs". These are crucial technologies that can help bridge the gap between institutional biology and the street. At Lincoln, I have established infrastructure for the open-source development and sharing of these technologies, including riding the wave of commodity digital fabrication tools to democratize this hardware. In two graduate courses I have taught at MIT, students used commodity 3D printing to manufacture hardware for DNA assembly and microbial cell culture. A 3D printed biolab is in our near future. As part of the international Genetically Engineered Machines competition (iGEM), I am founding and chairing a new hardware track for students around the world to innovate new hardware for synthetic biology, with an emphasis on accessibility.
Ice incubation after bacterial heat shock. Community bio-hacking @EMW.
But tools are only a part of the picture. As the biological infrastructure is still nascent, physical spaces are critical at this stage.
I am currently working with Professor George Church of Harvard Medical School to teach "How to Grow Almost Anything," a new course for the international Fab Academy. As part of this process we are converting fab labs into bio labs. At EMW, we are building out a community biology lab in conjunction with our on-going renovations to construct a community fab lab and music studio. We will have infrastructure to remix electrical, mechanical, musical, and of course, living things. But EMW is just one of tens of spaces that are sprouting around the world where communities can begin exploring biological engineering.
I will combine my technical expertise, network and standing in the international synthetic biology community, and passion and experience organizing marginalized communities to establish STREET BIO. The Street Bio group will develop the next generation of biological tools and interfaces for rich interaction in communities around the world. We will work on cutting-edge tools, games, art, and virtual infrastructure. We will develop community programming based on these tools. Crucially, we will deploy these tools into community spaces around the world and network them, harnessing our collective strength. We will plant seeds.
But this is only the beginning.
Cell growth. Drawing by David Goodsell.
Perhaps at heart I am an applied ecologist, a cultivator of organisms, microbial and human. I'm proud of what I've accomplished with my mitotic life. But I, too, am a misfit. In a traditional biological engineering department I would be unable to focus on synthetic biology as a technology for empowering communities. Academic departments focus on publication impact, not community impact. Yet, deep technical expertise and organizing skill is required to deploy such community tools. My work belongs in an institution that can nurture both.
I'm ready for the next step in my growth.
The time is now. We don't need to follow the path of other technologies. The marginalized communities of the world can and should be activated, now, while our bio-economy is still developing. They must be the agents of change and shape the biological technologies that will impact our world, perhaps more profoundly than any other technology before it.
It's been a journey for me to discover my authentic self, and I feel deeply that the Media Lab is home. Please explore this page and the EMW webpage to learn more about me and my work. The photography you see is my own, and is a way for you to see the world through my eyes. I want to change the world, and I want STREET BIO at the Media Lab to be my vehicle for realizing that dream.
David Sun Kong, Ph.D.