This is the eighteenth post of a series of profiles on GOSH community members who were featured in the GOSH Community Events Framework. You can access the framework, along with this profile in its original format, on the GOSH website at https://openhardware.science/gosh-community-events-framework/.
Rachel Aronoff is a molecular biologist by training who works on genomic integrity, a big picture concept for public health, which pulls together all the molecular genetic details of cells, including active RNAs and the understanding of DNA as dynamic and repairable.
She was born and raised in the US and currently is based in Lausanne, Switzerland, where she helps coordinate a community lab association and biohackerspace called Hackuarium. “Hackuarium is all about open science, encouraging participatory research and getting people to not just share knowledge but know-how. It’s about getting people to understand more about science, and giving them the opportunity to do science,” explains Rachel. It can also work as a kind of incubator for science projects and startups. From working at Hackuarium she met Marc Dusseiller and Urs Gaudens, the founders of Hackteria Global Network, who were part of GOSH since the first meeting, in 2016. “Urs brought Jenny Molloy along to a biohacker meetup event at Hackuarium,” she remembers. “And I found out about the GOSH activities because one of the early Hackuarium members, Sam Sulaimanov, from the Hackuarium project Octanis, said ‘Aren’t you going to Shenzhen for GOSH?’ And I said ‘oh, why not?’”
“I had never seen people use so many stickies in one place,” laughs Rachel when she remembers the setting of the agenda through the unconference process, during the first day of GOSH 2018. “Everybody was brainstorming, gathering the stickies up and putting them back together in different places. In the end it was very interesting, that sort of democratising communication, because sometimes it’s just the brave loud people who talk the most,” she highlights. “Everybody at GOSH is quite supportive, and people try not to be too judgmental. It’s all part of the whole ethics,” she remarks. As the main ingredients for a good meeting, she mentions: “You need excited people, and a good space”.
Microscopes for all
“I had been working with different DIY microscopes that I learnt about over the years, especially the origami microscope, the Foldscope”, tells Rachel. “So I came to Shenzhen and thought it would fit perfectly with the GOSH ideals”. Rachel co-conducted a workshop on DIY microscopes with Julian Stirling, who was showing the new developments of the OpenFlexure microscope.
“We did a sort of workshop with this origami paper microscope with a little glass ball lens. It was super hands-on and easy, really a making type of thing”, describes Rachel. “Everybody just made it. We also tried to do an experiment with one of these 3D printed ideas for fluorescence microscopy, but it didn’t look very good. Next time, I’ll try to make sure to have more samples for things to look at once the microscopes are made, so people can play around with what they’ve done,” says Rachel. “Through my participation, I got to know the people who developed the OpenFlexure microscope. I came home from GOSH with this great idea of using it for one of my main AGiR! projects, and that was one of the things that we did manage to do before the pandemic really hit us, to see nuclei in cells with epifluorescence on the OpenFlexure. That’s what I brought home from Shenzhen: amazing new ideas, the basis for more work ahead”.
Patents are not helping
“It is very clear that there’s one kind of open science where you put out an open access journal publication, as in the case of the Foldscope, but then there’s the other thing where they want to go ahead and patent it, and make a big deal of money out of it,” states Rachel. “In fact, after their open science publication, Foldscopes were patented, so we have always used the ‘old-school’ version found in a blog from an old team member for our workshops. We call it the oFoldscope. I had talked with some people in GOSH 2018 before doing the foldscope workshop: ‘Will I get in trouble for doing this?’ They said that probably it’s no problem if you’re not making money. Basically, the companies who complain about patent infringement have to prove that they lost money because of whatever you did. Nobody lost money because of our workshops, like my GOSH session.”
“I think it’s really important to emphasise that documentation of experiments and open science is really the way forward for our world,” reflects Rachel. “All this secrecy, with startups not sharing things, causes so many problems… Now there’s this whole thing about the vaccines and whether or not they could share the methods that they use to get rid of the double-stranded RNA and to label the RNA so it’s not recognised by the immune system and so on… And these things are molecular biology, you should be able to teach them to people even in resource-strapped settings, although scaling up production is a big technical challenge”, she claims.
“The point is that when people do open science research, they should also be trying to emphasise the importance of sharing not just knowledge, but know-how, instead of just trying to make a secret process for intellectual property (IP) protected by a patent. Patents are not something that help our world improve in general,” remarks Rachel. “I think that people would still make profits, if there is a market for their product, without having to keep all these secrets. As ninety percent of startups fail, that’s a lot of effort for our whole society being wasted. We support the basic research that led to these startups, and then they make it all secret and nobody is supposed to use what they make. And then what happens? It turns out our Corona Detective methodology has a patent for both the amplification and the detection strategy, and we still don’t know if the licensing fees will be too steep to enable at-scale production and surveillance screening.”