Two VCU students are bringing the idea of citizen science down to a local level by attempting to start their own independent science lab.
Fledgling company Indie Lab RVA, founded by Grace Cummings and Elliot Roth, aims to equip and encourage scientific discovery to these curious individuals. Indie Lab uses a membership program to supply scientists with the tools necessary to perform safe and reliable experiments. Their goal is to provide everyone the opportunity to know, explore and practice science.
Cummings, a junior physics major, says the group’s inspiration came from her experiences coming into VCU. As a freshman, she was denied access to laboratory time in her own department, forcing her to go to a separate campus, without grants, to perform her own experiments.
This is not the first laboratory of its kind. In 2011, Eri Gentry opened the doors to BioCurious, a community lab of the same model in Sunnyvale, California. By crowdfunding through Kickstarter, the startup flourished and BioCurious is still providing a growing workspace for scientists today.
“What sets apart science students or scientists in general is being published and having lab research,” Cummings said.
Currently, there are more students than laboratory positions, creating an environment where ideas must be stemmed. Science students attending VCU have difficulty getting lab time, and it is near impossible for non-students. It is unlikely for an undergrad student to ever enter the lab, and if they do get the chance, they are probably laboratory technicians.
“You don’t get to think of your own ideas,” Cummings said. “You don’t get to direct your own study.”
For Cummings, the problem with science is the hierarchy that prohibits new faces from entering the research process. She said her aim is to create an independent lab with the goal of providing research opportunities to the up-and-comers.
Independent laboratory testing also has the added freedom from squabbles over ownership. When a company funds a project, that company owns the final product. The developers who may have dedicated years to the process cannot claim any rights.
“That takes away their financial gain and also it diminishes their desire to work,” Cummings said.
Indie Lab RVA will soon launch a Kickstarter campaign to fund their development. They have yet to procure their own permanent space, and are currently working out of HackRVA’s makerspace. HackRVA has provided support for the project and other indie startups throughout Richmond. HackRVA has given a large amount of support to Indie Lab RVA thus far.
“People want this to happen,” Cummings says.
Trying to balance opening a lab with schoolwork has placed a serious strain on the entire process. On top of the costs of entrepreneurship, the founders are pursuing degrees in physics and biomedical engineering.
“It’s just finding a balance,” Cummings said.
In August, Indie Lab RVA organized a fundraising event where attendees learned the science behind rocketry and built water-bottle rockets. Cummings said she approached a young girl who attended and asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. The girl eagerly responded, “I am a scientist.”
“Close to my heart are women in science, especially young women,” Cummings said.
Laboratory equipment often runs up to thousands of dollars. Scientific testing is not an accessible hobby to the average citizen because of these prices. However, research shows that scientific experimentation can be crucial in the child development process.
Despite this, there has been a steep decline in laboratory classes in public schools, with the national average being only 2.3 hours per week spent in the lab.
Indie Lab RVA will serve as a medium for children and adults alike to participate in experimentation that will broaden their understanding of various subjects.
“The kids who want to do it will find a way,” Cummings said. “They’ll find us.”
Indie Lab RVA attend MakerFest 2014 on Sept. 27. This is an event for “Makers” from around Richmond to showcase their various talents. Co–founder Elliot Roth said he was excited after seeing the applications open.
“Hey, we’re making science right? So we applied, and we’re making science,” Roth said.
Indie Lab RVA will present an experiment that involves the extraction of DNA strands from strawberries by using ethanol.
“We’re excited to be doing something no one else is doing,” Roth said.
More information about Indie Lab RVA can be found through their Facebook or Twitter page.