Science has an underground scene, too

Written by on February 20, 2013 in Featured, Neighborhood News - No comments

At the Baltimore Underground Science Space’s first open house, kids and adults alike got their first peek at DNA as extracted from strawberries. Pictured are, from left, Anna McCoy, Alasia Hestle, Ella Keaton, BUGSS co-founder Laura Dress, Avery Keaton, and Heather Keller. Photo by Sue Stowell

Passers-by would be clueless that the non-descript suite in the recently renovated King Cork & Seal building is actually one of just four “citizen science labs” in the U.S. The Baltimore Underground Science Space, 101 N. Haven St., suite 105, puts Charm City on the

map with New York, Boston, and San Francisco as a spot where everyday folks—abundant curiosity is the only prerequisite—can experience the endless and growing possibilities of biology and biotechnology.

One offering? Bio-printing—using a modified 3-D printer to print biological structure. The lab has purchased a 3-D printer, and is working on assembling it and adding biological capabilities.

“This is 3-D printing with the ‘ick’ factor,” explains lab’s blog, “Want a nose like Katherine Webb? (I know I do!) How about printing one up!” (Katherine Webb is Miss Alabama—Ed.)

The blog goes on to mention “wood printing.”

“This is an effort to duplicate all the nice mechanical and aesthetic qualities of wood, except that it would be printed close to net shape with living cells. The dream is jointless furniture!”

BUGSS is a membershi

p-driven organization in the process of becoming a 501(c)(3) charity. According to co-founder Laura Dress, BUGSS is aspiring to become the go-to place where the community can learn the very basics of biotechnology, which is “going so fast and so far beyond this lab.”

“This is grass roots; this is community, and we want Baltimore to have a place to learn this stuff,” says Dress.

It’s also meant to be a fun place where artists, philosophers, engineers, and just about everybody else can learn about and apply biotechnology to their own interests.
Bio-printing is just one of the many activities/experiments/conversations open to participants and members. A representative from the FBI will discuss bio-security at the next BUGSS “Chalk Talk” on Fri., March 1. Dress herself hosts Thursday-evening discussions on biotechnology’s intersection with art and philosophy.

“There’s really neat stuff you can do with biology if you’re an artistic person,” she says. “We’ve been having amazing conversations the past two weeks.”

Recently, a tattoo artist came in and made a “petri-dish painting” using bacteria. One of the bacteria changed colors in the presence of another bacteria.

“When his painting grew in the incubator, the bacteria close to the other bacteria turned red, and the ‘Mom heart’ he made turned red,” explains Dress.

Bio-fiction and bio-couture—or growable clothing—are other possibilities.

BUGSS has met the Centers for Disease Control standards of biosafety level 1, according to Dress, which means that the lab may work with yeast, non-pathogenic E. coli, and other biological substances that pose no threat to healthy adults.

Nevertheless, the lab prioritizes safety.

“You can’t do anything in here without taking a biosafety course first,” says Dress.

Once citizen scientists learn to keep themselves and their peers safe, it’s all about fun, discovery, and learning. BUGSS celebrated its opening in September with a champagne-and-strawberries event, with a twist—guests isolated the DNA from the strawberries.

“DNA, when it comes out of the strawberry, basically looks like snot,” explains Dress. “There’s definitely something happening during those events that’s beautiful. I could show you a dozen or more pictures where three generations who have never seen DNA are standing in front of a microscope.”

Currently, the membership base of BUGSS is approaching 10. Dress says that 30 members are needed to cover expenses.

“Anything above that,” she adds, “means we’ll be able to give back and give back and give back.”

BUGSS was founded by Tom Burkett, a professor and director of the Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Program at the Community College of Baltimore County. Co-founders are Dress, a K-12 STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) writer who spent over a decade in the financial world before shifting toward biotechnology, and Steve Stowell, an engineer for a smart grid electric utility services company in Germantown.

Other tenants in the King Cork & Seal building include an independent screen printer, the Pinebox Art Center, and other creative endeavors.

“The tenants that have moved in are all makers, so we fit right in,” says Dress.

For more information on BUGSS, including upcoming events and how to be a member, visit their Web site,

by Erik Zygmont

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