Indie Lab RVA: experimental space

Taylor Thornberg
Spectrum Editor

From left to right: Elliot Roth, Grace Cummings and Bill Slavin are working to create a space where aspiring scientists can experiment and invent independently. Photo by Brooke Marsh

At first mention, Indie Lab RVA might sound like a great organization name for a film student or dog enthusiast to ponder. The name actually belongs to a non-profit, up-and-coming independent science lab for students and professionals alike.

“Think of it kind of as a gym for science,” Indie Lab founder Elliot Roth said. “So people pay membership and they come in and they’re able to do experiments.”

The concept is for people to do experiments of their own design and at their own pace, something other school- or research-related labs don’t offer.

Roth, a senior biomedical engineering major at Virginia Commonwealth University, co-founded the organization in March 2014 with Grace Cummings, a VCU physics major. The pair said they thought of the idea after each was having an equally poor experience in other labs in Richmond. As undergraduates, Roth and Cummings were only offered low-skill, largely non-experiment-related jobs.

“I would go into a lab and all I would do is wash dishware, and do all the dishes for all the researchers, the grad students in the lab,” Roth said.

Cummings had a similar experience in a lab on the medical campus at VCU, and said she felt as though she wasn’t able to contribute to the experiments as much as she wanted to. Both Roth and Cummings said they felt that science should be more open and accessible, and that people should have more opportunities for hands-on experience.

After realizing the potential of an independent lab and how it could impact the community, Cummings submitted the idea to the Richmond I.E. startup competition, and kept working on it even after the idea didn’t win the popular vote.

By submitting to the competition, Roth and Cummings were connected with Bill Slaven, who holds a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry and recently moved to Richmond from Chicago. Roth said Slaven expressed interest in starting his own lab, and saw Indie Lab RVA as an investment into something the entire community could use.

“From there our lab blossomed,” Roth said. “He brought a lot of equipment he’s been collecting … since he started his Ph.D.”

Although Indie Lab is still working on finding a cost-efficient space for experimenters to use, at the moment they rent a small space in the MakerLab of Richmond, where they keep the equipment they’ve collected. The team behind Indie Lab is cooking up several events, talks and workshops to help raise awareness and pay for a legitimate lab space, including their own “Richmond community science mixers.” Last week’s mixer, called a “science rave,” gave students the opportunity to explore fluorescence with glow-in-the-dark cocktails and homemade glow sticks.

When the lab space is finished, Roth and Cummings said that the space would not be a sterilized or restricted area, but rather a place where anyone, perhaps even high school students, could come in and conduct experiments.

Despite a rather random assortment of equipment available in Indie Lab RVA, Roth said there’s no need for lots of expensive equipment in labs.

“You can do most experiments just on a kitchen table,” Roth said. “You can have an incubator if you put cells in your armpit, ’cause it’ll be incubated at body temperature.”

While Indie Lab isn’t the first independent lab in the United States, Roth said it will be Richmond-centric, and the founders hope it goes above and beyond other independent labs in terms of size and accessibility. Roth and Cummings took a trip to visit several independent labs and see how their models work before applying any ideas to their own lab.

No matter what ideas form the future of Indie Lab RVA, Roth said, “in an open science laboratory, it’s all about the community, it’s all about sharing and collaborating. We aim to have publications coming out of this.”

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