Katriona Guthrie-Honea blew us away with her response to our #WhyIDoScience birthday wish! Her story chronicles everything from DIYBio, entrepreneurship, and even how to handle rejection. We were inspired by her remarkable story below and are sure you will be too.
I first heard about genetics when I was eight. The human genome project had come out two years before, and people were entranced with the idea of genes and DNA. I became fascinated with the idea. DNA was awesome! I watched documentaries, read books, and started coming up with my own theories.
But when I was 12, I discovered astro-particle physics. After learning about anti-matter, I thought biology was lost to me for good, I forgot about DNA and exchanged “Genome – the autobiography of the species in 23 chapters” for “The Science of The Impossible”. I spent three years engrossed in black holes, and reverse radiation – but just in theory. I did no more than think, and my plan revolved around going to work somewhere with a particle accelerator. I had the same dream as ever other child – I planned on getting straight A’s, keeping up extracurriculars, going to a prestigious school, and working my way up in a lab. In middle school, if you have a project idea, you’re told, “How creative sweetie” and that’s that. No help, no mention of science fairs. You’re treated like a pet that does something cute – novel, but we all know that it won’t repeat it (my dog certainly won’t. His trick capacity lies with in the 60% of times he sits when you ask.) Middle school science tortured the tired teachers, waiting for retirement, and making sure their kids suffered with them. Regardless, I continued my love affair with science, something I know many don’t get to do.
I got to high school, and discovered with shock, that when you presented an idea, people actually listened to you! What was this thing called support? My dog’s hair characterizes every article of clothing I own. Prompting me to build a system that could dissolve dog hair – that if put in a washing machine, would not dissolve the rest of your clothes.
In a completely “practical move”, I decided to ignore all chemical approaches, and theorized an idea using gene targeting to identify the dog hair genes. Aside from the obvious overkill problems (dog hair mostly consists of keratin, not DNA) I didn’t even know what an enzyme was, but I decided to do a biotech project.
My amazing biology teacher, Ingrid Dinter, directed me to the Northwest Association of Biomedical Research (NWABR) biotech expo, and they set me up with local graduate student at the University of Washington as a mentor. I eagerly sent him an email, and we met up near his lab at the University of Washington. He helped verify that my idea would work, and gave me some things to research. Armed with only an eighth grade overview of biology, I spent hours online, decoding what I didn’t understand, “What is an enzyme-substrate complex?!” I used a friend’s college login, to get access to the scientific papers on my enzyme, because I couldn’t afford to buy every article I read.
Fast forward 8 months, 300 plus hours of work, 10 packages of gel Epoxy, and more than 200 different copper pieces, I walked out of the NWABR Biotech expo with a 1st place ribbon.
But wait. I had spent over 300 hours on this project. More importantly, I believed in the idea. I started looking for lab space to do proof of concept in. I talked to NWABR, Systems Institute for Biology, Seattle BioMed, and a litany of professors at the University of Washington, but no one could give me lab space. I was still 15 at the time, which legally meant I couldn’t be left unsupervised in the lab – a hard sell for any mentor to take on.
I got inspired about opening HiveBio through trying to find a lab. Despite over 100 emails and 10 serious meetings, I never managed to find a lab space. Two months after the expo, my project seemed a lost cause. I was sure that if I didn’t get something the next time, I would quit. When I met Cindy Wu, the co-founder of Microryza, I had told myself that if she couldn’t give me lab space, I was done. I’d already talked to 10 different people, and had sent out over 80 emails. Cindy spent two hours spinning out idea after idea with me, taking me to different labs and friends. Cindy represents the idea of perseverance. She unknowingly convinced me to keep going. I spent the day knocking on professor’s doors, trying to get a chance to pitch. And it would make a great story if one of those professors offered me lab space. Well, they didn’t. But, I did increase my odds of acceptance. I knocked off 20 people that would reject me in the statistical standings. And three months later I was offered an internship at the Stoddard lab at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, which has been an amazing experience.
But I wanted to open a space for interested people to test their ideas. What about all the other people that have biology ideas? I still didn’t have a space to test my idea. We need to encourage people to experiment with bio, not inhibit them. Reading a Discover Magazine article about DIYBio inspired me to open up what would become HiveBio.
BioHackerspaces are community lab spaces allowing for experimentation without formal background. It’s like a gym model of a biology lab. You pay a membership fee to use the equipment, you can take classes, and it’s also a community for people that are interested in the same things. Currently, it is nearly impossible for a bioscience enthusiast to gain hands-on experience in a lab without a formal science degree. This requires a level of income that creates an inappropriate gap between means and access to education. In addition, science education in US schools is often ineffective. By setting up places where people can work on their ideas without having it as their formal “work”, people start to innovate. These environments help to obviate the concept of failure, which is essential for innovation. Furthermore, many people are still afraid of biotech, especially DIY bio! We want to help expose it to the community and explain the science behind it, obviating fear the unknown. In addition, we want to challenge the current standard that bioscience only belongs in the hands of a few highly trained individuals. We believe that putting the tools of science in the hands of citizen scientist supports true innovation.
Through Ellen Jorgensen of Genspace, my cofounder/director Bergen McMurrary and me met, and started to create HiveBio. HiveBio is a community run organization with safety board officials, and elected directors among others, to insure safety. We have an educated lab monitor on hand to ensure safety and help advise members at all times the lab is open. Embracing the principals of open access to information, DIYbio seeks to demystify science through education. We offer a wide range of classes, from simple procedures, to more complex theories.
Before I met Bergen, I had planned on opening HiveBio in 2015, not 2013. When we first met, I was terrified of working in a team. I spent the first months writing and rewriting my emails, trying to make sure they weren’t insulting. I worried about giving up my vision, about losing my voice. I hated working in teams. But less then six months later, we’re opening the doors to HiveBio. Not only have we worked faster, Bergen handling the business and building side, me dealing with funding and outreach, but we work so much better together. We bring both of our backgrounds to make HiveBio better. Furthermore, I’ve made a great friend. And do the math. Two people will almost always be more productive than one. You will have to make some compromises, and give a little, so don’t jump in right away, but don’t shy away from teams. Teams have your back, and sometimes you need that support.
As a 16-year-old cofounding a BioHackerspace, I started to garner a lot of press. It started with an interview with Geekwire, and then KUOW starting talking about me. I got invited to TEDMED for free through my amazing friend of Milsal + McCaul, Taylor Milsal. My age fascinated people, and I was passed around from person to person. I feel honored and lucky to have these opportunities at my age, when other people more deserving don’t – but there is only so much astonishment I can take. Age should not be the determining factor. We use it as an easily quantifiable indicator, but many 40-year-olds act 16, and some 16-year-olds can have the maturity of 40. Some things do need to be gained by experience, and obviously I’m missing some things, but so is everyone else. I’ve experienced many things that others never will, and I’m missing out on others. I don’t want this to be a sob story about the troubles of being so young. Most of the time people are excited to help me, asking, “how can I help?”.
I’ve learned a lot about my ability to persist and push myself harder than I thought I could go. When I was building my original model, there were so many times I thought I was doomed to failure. Just reorienting it took me half an hour because of the complexity. I would be sitting in my basement, almost in tears, worrying that I was set up for failure. But somehow, I got through it. Now I approach everything thinking, “of course I can do it, I’ll find a way”. It sounds cheesy, but it’s one of the keys to my success. People laughed when I told them I was going to contact IMEC, but I thought I could, and I did. I believed I could find lab space, and maybe I couldn’t find it, but I could build it. If I had believed I had the capability to finish my model, I could have saved a lot of water rehydrating myself from all those tears.
Oh and also, all those people who said no earlier, I still keep in contact with all of them. In fact, one of them just gave me $100 for a recent crowdfunding project. When I was little, I hated being told no so much that I never asked for things. I had to teach myself how to put myself out there and risk rejection. Entrepreneurship is one large question – do you like me? Because your project becomes you. Whether it’s taking the form of funding, press, hiring, or what not, you constantly put yourself out there. I quit acting the first time I didn’t get the lead, but I’m learning how to keep going after rejections in all forms and varieties. I had to learn how to take constructive criticism, which seemed like an oxymoron. I had to learn, they weren’t necessarily rejecting me, or my idea, they just couldn’t help in the exact way I needed. Though sometimes, people will say NO. Well they say…
I received this image in an email I sent to an IMEC researcher asking to talk with him about a gene chip I wanted to use in my system. I sent him a four-paragraph email; he sent me this. Only this. So sometimes they will say no. Out of the 25 IMEC people I researched, three replied, one of them him. Later I talked with the head of their life sciences division. Cindy once told me, “A No is always a Maybe until it’s a Yes”. One year ago, his response would have sent me into tears. I probably would have huddled up with “How I Met Your Mother” and chocolate, never thinking of the matter again. But forgoing the pity huddle manifested itself in a call. Trying something will always get you rejections that you’ll have to learn how to persevere through. If you can’t deal with rejection, you will never get to the point of acceptance.
And now I’m starting proof of concepts for my original biotech idea, and working on expanding it into a company – Medi.Rev. Bergen and I got nominated for Women to Watch in Life Sciences Northwest, and we’re only growing. I no longer plan to be just a researcher in an academic lab, and I’m finding much more to high school than a 4.0 and extracurriculars. I believe in what I do, and it makes me happy. Sometimes, it’s as simple as that.