Tuesday, 29 October 2013 10:56

Scientists Play at Boston Science Hack Day

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Hack Day 1Jessica Polka (right) and her team brainstorming
their Biology-to-English dictionary.
On a brisk and sunny New England fall Saturday, hackers filed along the Cambridge sidewalks, skirting the venerable Harvard Museum of Natural History to descend the starkly modern concrete stairs of the university's five-year-old Northwest Science Building. Down the steps they went, under the suspended whale skeletons and into a basement with natural light pouring in from the windows mounted in the lawn above. There on modular red sofas and often on the floor, the hardiest spent the next 30 hours immersed in Science Hack Day Boston, an experiment in combining science, skill, and playfulness that was sponsored in part by ASCB.

At the start, the 70 or so Boston hackers gulped coffee and inhaled bagels slathered with cream cheese before shuffling into the auditorium for short talks to inspire hacking. Jessica Polka, a Harvard Medical School postdoc, co-chair of ASCB's new committee for postdocs and students (COMPASS), and one of the event organizers, explained that Science Hack Day was not about sneaking into computer networks. Instead, Polka quoted open software activist Richard Stallman's definition: "Hacking means exploring the limits of what is possible, in a spirit of playful cleverness."

Jose Gomez-Marquez, medical device designer at MIT's Little Devices, said that playful hacking takes high-tech and high-cost medical tools and makes them low cost and accessible to surgeons in the developing world. He recently hacked cautery pens, used to minimize the risk of post-op infections. In the U.S., the pens are disposable and cost $12 per surgery, an amount that would take many in the developing world a week to earn. Gomez-Marquez found that the pens could be made reusable with replaceable tips, changeable AA batteries, and simplified circuitry. The "hacked" cautery pens cost less than a penny per surgery. 

After the inspiration came 90-second pitches from prospective project leaders. Ideas included creating bioluminescent algae for an art installation, automating pattern detection in biometric data from devices such as electrocardiograms, and making a cemetery-friendly app that would use GPS to tag grave sites with individual histories. Hackers then voted with their feet, organizing into seven teams plus one solo project.

Hack days have been around since the early 2000s but the first official Science Hack Day was held in London in 2010. The London hackers built a satellite tracking site, a "co-author cloud," and an online kid-centric measurement comparison tool. Science Hack Days have since been organized all over the world, generating such triumphs as the strawberry DNAquiri (a delicious DNA extraction) or utilizing smartphones to detect earthquakes.

Hack Day 3Michael Baym (squatting) and his team working
to code software that will play a scanned image of a record.
This year's Boston hackers were mostly students and postdocs from MIT and Harvard but also included an unaffiliated artist, two science writers, and a few employees from local tech companies. All came for a weekend away from their studies and work, hoping to recapture some of the joy that made them fall in love with science originally. Pressed for a single word to describe their motivation, hackers came up with "power," "wonder," "fun," "liberation," and "innovation."

Stoked on ideas, caffeine, and excitement, the teams started brainstorming while refueling on free burritos. Michael Baym, a postdoc at MIT, led a hack team seeking to create software that could play vintage phonograph records using a $50 Epson scanner. The objective was to read old lacquer discs now too delicate for needles. Baym explained his concept, "If we can write software and take images, and figure out what the needle would do, we can reproduce sound."

Baym's hackers chased various ideas, hunched over laptops, their fingers tapping out code in MATLAB. Two hours later, Baym showed the first fruits of the program, a graph of peaks and valleys that represented the topography of a series of grooves. "When you take a 20-pixel sweep, that's what you get," he said. The hackers clustered around his laptop, excited to add a bit or a byte to the successful code. Thirty hours later (with a few off-peak hours asleep), Baym and team were able to play a one-second snippet of music extracted by scanning a record groove.

Polka and her team created a program that she said, "would call you out on your jargon that you don't realize is jargon." Since words like "media" or "translation" can mean completely different things to biologists and to non-biologists, Polka wanted to make scientists more aware of slipping into their private language, especially when communicating with the wider world. Polka and her team coded all night to create a MATLAB version of a "Biology-to-English Dictionary." 

Jessica McKellar, a systems engineer and author of Twisted Network Programming Essentials, took on a solo project—she would write a program to spot Wikipedia articles about women in STEM that lacked important basic information. With it, McKellar set up a website, listing hundreds of STEM women with deficient Wikipedia entries. Her hope was to steer Wikipedia editors toward repairing the worst examples.

Hack Day 2Hackers tinkering with a device
to electrically stimulate the brain.
Other groups worked on composing electronic music using a melody that evolves according to Conway's Game of Life, generating an app to correlate microbiome with diet, mapping trends in "hot" biology buzzwords, and using transcranial stimulation to improve performance on Raven's Matrices

Peeling themselves off their red couches on Sunday morning, the hackers shuffled back to the auditorium for final presentations of their overnight achievements. After suitable arguments and rhetorical questions, the judges awarded a grand prize to both the "Office Copier Phonograph" and "Wikipedia Women in STEM." Then the hackers took their computers and bed rolls up the concrete stairs past the hanging whales and out into the Cambridge fresh air, invigorated once more by the playful cleverness of science.


Christina Szalinski

Christina is a science writer for the American Society for Cell Biology. She earned her Ph.D. in Cell Biology and Molecular Physiology at the University of Pittsburgh.

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