GOSH Community Member Profile of Ryan Fobel: “Finding people to meet and collaborate”

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Source: Gathering for Open Science Hardware

This is the nineteenth 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/.

By Marcela Basch, independent journalist, Argentina. Twitter: @marbasch

Ryan Fobel is a biomedical engineer, a hardware hacker and an entrepreneur.

During his PhD studies at the University of Toronto, he designed an open source droplet-based digital microfluidic platform for automation of biology and chemistry, DropBot, which was built in more than 20 labs around the world. He is part of Global Hackteria Network and co-founder of Sci-Bots, a startup to develop tools for automating and miniaturizing biology.

“During my Master’s degree, I was developing software for processing neuroimaging data, and found open source really enabling, especially in contrast to the proprietary MRI hardware I was working with.. It was very difficult to get the raw data I needed for my research”, remembers Ryan. “I became increasingly interested in physical computing and started playing with Arduinos and built my first 3D printer in 2010. I started looking for a PhD that would combine my interests in biology and hardware, which led me to the field of microfluidics”.

“I went to some open hardware summits and I started to build a bit of a network. I met Greg Austic in 2013, before GOSH. We were talking about the potential of open source hardware within science”, recalls Ryan. “In the first GOSH event, I was so excited: ‘Wow, there’s people here that are like me!’. Because even within my own lab, I felt very much on my own. So it felt amazing to find this community”. Ryan was part of the three global GOSH events, and in 2019 he and Greg Austic organised Great Lakes GOSH, a regional meeting in Toronto.

Meaningful conversations

“GOSH is unlike any other conference, because of the self-organising unconference style and the diversity of people. Also, there is less focus on technical details, and more discussion about values and the impacts of technology on society. And it’s way more interesting and fun”, he states. “I remember at CERN, Marc [Dusseiller] and the Hackteria people had invited a group of artists to perform during one of the breaks. They started playing this really loud industrial noise music, and I remember thinking: ‘what is going on?’. But I think that was an important part of it; pushing people outside of their comfort zones. GOSH was very inspiring: so many ideas and interactions with really interesting people. I had meaningful conversations with most of the people there, which is pretty special”.

“Before every GOSH event, the organisers provide basic facilitation training: what you should and shouldn’t do to make sure that everybody gets to contribute and no one dominates the conversation. GOSH sessions feel more like a conversation rather than a lecture”, says Ryan. “We tried to replicate that facilitation aspect at Great Lakes GOSH; luckily Greg has a lot of experience and training. It’s important to have some people involved who can model for other people, because it’s really important to make the event work”.

Great Lakes GOSH

“When we were organising the Great Lakes event, it was really helpful that we had a lot of organisational materials from previous gatherings to lean on. We used a similar application process, looking for balanced representation from different groups”, says Ryan. “We couldn’t afford to fly people from all over the world, and one of our goals was to have more of a regional focus. When we put out the application and posted it in the forum, we got a really diverse group of people applying. I’m sure that it was a lot more work in the earlier GOSH events, but now you start out with this diverse community. We got a really interesting mix of people right off the bat. “

Around 35 people gathered for a couple of days at the University of Toronto and at an eco education centre called The Evergreen Brickworks. “It would have been much harder to do without previous GOSH’s spreadsheets. Nevertheless we had to figure out a lot of stuff, because we had a very limited budget”, explains Ryan. “It’s challenging to run an event without an organisation to handle money. We ended up setting up a Paypal account to collect money and reimburse expenses, but that’s not ideal. I had to personally book the venues under my own name, which is a bit risky: if anything goes wrong, you don’t have insurance”. They covered costs by charging some attendees that were able to pay a fee, like those sent by companies or universities. “We used some of that money to subsidise other people who wouldn’t have been able to afford it. We tried to figure out how to move the money around and charge the right amount to cover all the expenses”, he says. “It was very DIY. A bit stressful, but fun. We tried to involve as many people as we could, but a lot of the heavy lifting fell on Greg and I… By the end, I was super burnt out. Next time, I’d make sure to have a bigger team”.

Retreat

After the main event, a smaller group stayed for a couple of days. “10 or 15 of us went to a little cabin one hour outside Toronto. It was less structured: just people hanging out, cooking together, and doing little impromptu sessions. It had more of a summer camp feel”, says Ryan. “If budget and organizational capacity are limited, it might make sense to focus on these types of casual retreats, and less on the more formal events, because this was a lot less work to organise, and a lot cheaper”, he reflects. “But this also has implications on numbers: you cannot have a retreat in a cabin with 50 people. It would be great to have a week just working on stuff together, pushing forward a common project. It’s harder to work together on hardware remotely”, he points out. “GOSH is amazing, it has introduced me to this wonderful community, but they’re spread all over the world. The motivation for a regional event was to build community at local level, so that we could meet more frequently to collaborate”.

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