Transcript – Episode 85


Narrator: This podcast is a project of the Mass Cultural Council. We believe in the power of culture — the arts, humanities, and sciences — to enrich communities, advance equity, and foster creativity.

David Kong: The beauty of this project is that we’re basically introducing the life sciences and the microbiome, which is a really, really important area of research to the public through this universal thing called music.

Anita Walker: Hi, I am Anita Walker at the Mass Cultural Council and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is David Sun Kong. He is the Director of the MIT Media Lab’s Community Biotechnology Initiative and founder of EMW Community Space. And welcome to our program, David.

David Kong: It’s such a pleasure to be here, Anita.

Anita Walker: Now, this is going to be an interesting conversation mainly because I have no idea where we’re going.

David Kong: <laughs>

Anita Walker: But I do know that we are going to explore the space and intersection of art and science.

David Kong: Yes.

Anita Walker: Very exciting, so maybe I’ll just start out by asking you what is the EMW Community Space?

David Kong: That’s a great question. So EMW is very near and dear to my heart. It connects back actually to part my family lineage. So I’m a son of Chinese immigrants that came here to the U.S. My parents met in graduate school at Syracuse. And then they came over to the Boston area around 1968 and they– my dad was a professor at MIT actually. And as a part of their journey they actually purchased this very old building that was right on Mass Avenue between Harvard and Central Square, that used to be a sex toy shop call Hubba Hubba and then they converted the storefront into a Chinese language bookstore called East Meets West Bookstores. So it was intended actually to serve the generation of immigrants from my parents’ generation. And my dad was super into Chinese philosophy and literature and the arts, and so that space was kind of set up for that generation and had all these wonderful books. And, you know, poetry from Chinese history. And myself and a number of other community organizers took over the space in around 2004, 2005 and then we started hosting open mics and our own arts events in that space. So there’s this really strange period of a number of years where, you know, there were these Chinese language books but then all of these, you know, chapbooks and CDS and like, you know, hip-hop paraphernalia <laughs> and all of this kind of, you know, kind of cross generational cultural works in a way in this space. And then over the years, you know, we really expanded all the programming starting from this open mic called East Meets Words. So again, you know, the space was East Meets West Bookstore so EMW is both East Meets West. But it’s also electromagnetic wave, which is my dad’s area of scientific research so there’s a lot of meeting bubbled up, you know, kind of bundled up into those three letters. And yeah, over the years it’s been a really marvelous journey starting from the arts and specifically poetry, and then expanding into electronic music, beatboxing. And then around four or five years ago, we built what’s called a Community Biology Lab. So we have this really interesting space that has all of these different forms of artistic expression jammed into one building. And the final thing I’ll mention here is just, you know, the major constituency that we serve are folks from marginalized identities. So the first program that we had in 2004, 2005– actually it started in March 2005, it was an open mic called East Meets Words. And, again, that primarily served the Asian American community here in the Boston area and then, over the years, has expanded to serve all kinds of other folks, so.

Anita Walker: So I am very intrigued by Bio to Beats.

David Kong: Mm-hm, Biota Beats.

Anita Walker: All right, I’m just going to read what the notes say–

David Kong: <laughs> Yeah, sure. Sure.

Anita Walker: — because this is obviously one of the more interesting topics that I think we’re going to explore. And this is a program where somehow music is created by how cells are interpreted. What?

David Kong: <laughs> So yeah. So it’s a really, a really fun project and I think for me as an intersection of a lot of my own personal interest. So, again, I’m trained in a field that’s called synthetic biology so I work in the life sciences. We work on developing these really powerful technologies to engineer the living world. But I’m also a community organizer, I’m a DJ, I’m a beatboxer, a freestyle rapper, a photographer–

Anita Walker: You are a Renaissance man.

David Kong: I don’t know about all that but I definitely enjoy the arts very, very deeply. And, you know, the Media Lab is all about exploring art, science, design, and engineering so — and I really believe that it’s kind of the intersection all of these modes of expression, where you really end up with the exciting and, you know, kind of disruptive work.

Anita Walker: Like the edge effect.

David Kong: The edge effect. The edge effect, interesting, what’s the edge effect?

Anita Walker: The edge effect that’s where all the exciting– it’s like when you get to the edge of one thing– like the edge of the forest and the meadow and right in that edge is where all the different forms come together and make some excitement.

David Kong: Yeah. Yeah. And, you know, it’s really funny. We have a phrase at the Media Lab that we like to use called Innovation at the Edge and a lot of that and it connects. Because the idea is that, you know, once you have a form of expression, whatever it is and lets take the Life sciences, once it becomes accessible enough and you get all of these diverse minds and perspectives in it, you end up with the magic. That’s when, you know, really that technology or that form gets to all of these diverse people and then, you know, you really get some exciting work. And really that connects very much with exactly Biota Beats. So how Biota Beats happened was is this really amazing kind of giant science nerd fest called iGEM, which is the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition.

Anita Walker: Oh, wow.

David Kong: It’s a mouthful, okay? But it’s basically thousands of young people from all around the world do these projects where they get these DNA base parts and they create these — engineer them — in systems. They all come to Boston at the Hynes Convention Center and they share their work. And I’m actually the official iGEM DJ. So that’s my like kind of funniest thing I get to do is I DJ this giant party for, you know, 3,000 nerds. But we participated in iGEM as a community lab so, as I mentioned, EMW has a community laboratory– a community biology laboratory. And we had a meeting and we were looking around and we said, you know, we wanted to do a project that was part of– that was focused on something called the human microbiome. So I don’t know if you’ve heard about that, have heard any of that.

Anita Walker: No, I knew about the edge effect.

David Kong: <laughs>

Anita Walker: See, I’m trying to catch up.

David Kong: Yeah. Yeah. So the human microbiome, again, very briefly, you’ve got about a hundred– hundreds of trillions of microorganisms that are inhabiting the human body. So you, you know, “you are not alone,” quote-unquote. I’ve got my air quotes going here. You know, are super organism. You the human are living in harmony with this incredible ecosystem of organisms that influence your cognition, your sleep, your mood, your development, and so they’re very, very important scientifically. But we asked ourselves a different question we said, you know, what if we could actually make music from these, this incredible ecosystem of organisms?

Anita Walker: Just to think of that question is pretty astounding.

David Kong: Yeah, it’s pretty wild. And part of how it happened was, you know, we’re in EM– we’re at EMW and, you know, again, we’ve got in this space it’s got all of this wonderful, you know, DJ equipment and production equipment all around us. And somebody literally pointed at a DJ turntable and said, “What if we– what if explored something between, that was an intersection between the microbiome and that DJ turntable?” right? And we’re like huh, right? And that started to lead us down the path of Biota Beats.

Anita Walker: Now, wait a minute. How do you hear the microbiome?


David Kong: Yeah. So the way that we do it is we literally build what are called Biota Records. And they are laser cut records and they look just like an EP or an LP vinyl record, except you can put what’s called a media there; so it’s basically bacteria food on to the record itself. And then the record sections so you can kind of put bacteria– you can then basically sample bacteria to using a Q-tip some water; bacteria from different parts of the body so from like your hand or your arm pit or your mouth. And, again, each part of the body, the organism, it’s a totally different universe, right? So the organisms inside your mouth are very different from the organisms like in your armpit, for example. And so you can sample these organisms, they grow on this by a biota record which is sitting on top of a retrofit record player that is literally an incubator. So basic–

Anita Walker: So it’s like a Petri dish.

David Kong: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, in a way. Yeah, exactly. But it looks like a DJ–

Anita Walker: A record player.

David Kong: Like a vinyl, yeah. Like vinyl records. And so the organisms grow and it’s literally sitting inside this box on top of this retrofit record player. And we have a camera that images the organisms as they grow over time and we’re collecting data about the organism. So, their growth rate, their diameter, their colony size, the density of the organisms from each body part. And then we collect all that data and then we have a series of algorithms that converts that data into midi files. Okay? And then the midi files are then the input for our production team. So we’ve got the– we work with this amazing producer in Los Angeles, Chucky Kim. Well, actually he was an artist in residence at the EMW for many years. And he then takes that midi file and then produces beautiful music with that work.

Anita Walker: Really beautiful music–

David Kong: Yeah. Yeah.

Anita Walker: — from the armpit?


David Kong: From the arm– from not just the armpit. And it’s a symphony of music actually, too, so you can layer all of that music together and create, you know, a really beautiful composition. We can actually play some of it a little bit later, if you want. We can kind of link to it or play a sample of it.

Anita Walker: Yes, we will absolutely. Absolutely we will make sure that everyone can hear the bio music.

David Kong: Wonderful.

Anita Walker: This is amazing. There’re so many things to talk about this. There’s just the whole fact of being able to do it. But there’s also this idea of an entry point into the bioscience for people who might think, “I don’t know what that is, but it just doesn’t sound like anything I’d want to go near.”

David Kong: Exact. So that is the central point I think of the projects. So, you know, right now especially we’re in this historical moment with the life sciences where, you know, we’re here in Boston which is in the bio hub of the world. And in Cambridge, you know, where I work, there are these giant glass buildings getting erected everywhere. And the public is walking around like what is going on with these giant glass buildings and all of these pharma companies and biotechs. What’s happening? And so there’s a real disconnect between the Life sciences and the public. And so the beauty of this project is that we’re basically introducing the Life sciences and the microbiome which is a really, really important area of research to the public through this universal thing called music. Right? Music universal–

Anita Walker: The universal language.

David Kong: It is the universal language. If you are human, I don’t care what your cultural background is, your socioeconomic class, your political standing, every being has a relationship in music. And so one of the magic things that we found with this project was, you know, you hear this music and, you know, you see this visual of the bacteria and the music that its creating and people ask, “What does my microbiome sound like?” Right? That’s kind of the first thing, like how do I do this for myself? What do I sound like, right?

Anita Walker: We have our own sounds.

David Kong: Yeah. Yeah, right? And so part of, you know, one of the– we did a couple of things with this project that I thought were really amazing. So one idea we had was, all right, you know, people have vinyl record collections. Right? What if you had a Biota Record collection, right? What if you could sample microorganisms from an amazing artist, right? So I was at this– and then actually make music from their microbiome. So get this. So I was at this event, speaking at this event last year with none other than the legendary DJ Jazzy Jeff. Okay, as in Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. And I, you know, I’m a huge hip-hop guy. And so, I was in the green room with Jeff and I told him, you know, we’re doing this crazy crop [ph?] project called Biota Beats and we’re making music from bacteria from the body. And he’s looking at me really quizzically. And I was like, “Jeff, you know, would it be okay if we sampled some of your microorganisms and made some music.” And–

Anita Walker: That’s an interesting ice breaker, isn’t–


David Kong: Yeah. Yeah, right? Right, what a great get to know you. Can I swab some of your– can I swab your armpit, DJ Jazzy Jeff, right? And, you know, Jeff was so cool and he’s like, “Yeah, you know, let’s do it.” And we ended up, you know, making a beat from his microorganisms. And so one of the most kind of the– one was satisfying moments of my career happened, you know, soon after that. You know, Jeff’s management team, you know, they contacted me they’re like, “Oh, you know, a Jeff is going on tour with Will Smith and like for the first time in 15 years. And, you know, everybody is on pins and needles about it. And we’ve been learning from you that the microbiome is dynamic. Right? It changes in response to stress. It changes in response to your diet and so on. So what if we sampled and created a Biota Beat of DJ jazzy Jeff before he went on tour, after he went on tour, and during a tour and saw how the music changed, right?” And I almost cried, you know, tears of joy because as a scientist, right, I mean he– that, you know, you’ve got some of the legendary people in hip-hop are literally like proposing a scientific experent to me– experience– experiment to me based on Biota Beats. Right? And so, you know, it just showed that, you know, through this project we’re really, really able to get, you know, really diverse folks that normally would not think about the Life sciences as something to be excited about. And all of a sudden through music, boom, we got an entry point.

Anita Walker: And so you actually have these neighborhood laboratories of life sciences that are opening their doors to young people who might never have thought about pursuing that.

David Kong: Yeah. Yeah, and this is one of the most exciting things that we’re working on at the Media Lab at MIT. So, again, I direct the Community Biotechnology Initiative and community that’s a huge, huge part of, you know, what I care about. And it’s really kind of a big part of why I think, you know, I’m here on this Earth is to help the different types of communities realize their visions, whatever they are. And so, you know, through this initiative we are organizing and we’re helping to organize this global network of what our community or what are called community biology labs. And again, you know, if you think about where we are in Life sciences you can’t go– you know, MIT, doesn’t have like an open public come and learn about CRISPR day, right? So there’s a really big need for spaces that can actually engage with the public and where the public come learn. And that is, you know, has emerged, these community biology labs have emerged as this crucial infrastructure. And so the first laps were organized, I want to say around eight or nine years ago in New York and in Brooklyn and in Sunnyvale, California where two of the first labs but has emerged into this big global movement. And so my laboratory to MIT, one of the big things we do is we organize something I’ll call the Global Community Bio Summit. Okay, which is basically this, again, giant nerd party, this is a recurring theme. But we bring together folks all around the world that are setting up these marvelous community labs where, again, the public and citizens and people that are excited about science can come learn about biotechnology, learn about the life sciences and, importantly, engage with really awesome and wonderful hands-on experiences.

Anita Walker: So let’s just pause right there. Because when I think about the built world, so we go in and, you know, you can use the imaging machines and all this stuff and make a copy of a little statue I wanted to make. But like what am I doing in the life science lab?

David Kong: Oh, it’s such a great question. So in the life sciences there are so many different aspects, right? So there’s molecular biology, so there’s actually being able to do things like build new DNA molecules. Right? And again, you know, I think one of the things that’s really– or it’s an opportunity in a way. You know, the public, the kind of basic biological literacy I think the public has unfortunately is pretty low. Right? So how many people in the public actually know the difference between DNA versus bacteria versus a virus and so on, right? And you ultimately, I think, understand about these concepts through hands-on experiences. Right? So we work very closely– in our community lab we’ve work very closely, for example, at the Cambridge Science Festival. And one of my former students built this wonderful table top machine called Amino [ph?] which basically is this system that allows you to take bacteria and you can basically introduce in a way, metaphorically you can think about it like a DNA based program that will reprogram the bacteria to do something like produce a smell or change color. Right? And so we’ve done these, you know, really neat workshops where over the course of a couple of days, you know, young people or really anybody can learn how to build a DNA molecule, that’s basically instructions that can give a microorganism these new properties. And you learn how to build that DNA molecule. You learn how to go through a process called transformation, where you actually inject that DNA molecule into the organism, and now all of a sudden the organism has a magic power. It can glow green. It can smell like bananas and so on. And so–

Anita Walker: I have to ask. Is this safe in the hands of amateurs?

David Kong: So I think it’s a really, really marvelous question. And I think, you know, right now in the life sciences, right, there’s a lot of ways in which this technology could be used for in a variety of things that could be pretty scary. And the first thing I’ll say is that in general with the community labs, where we are right now, everything that’s being done is incredibly safe. So, you know, we work very closely with the Cambridge Health Department and the director there, Sam Lipson, one of his best lines is that, you know, “What happens in a community– what you do in your kitchen is more dangerous than what happens in a community lab.” Okay, so in your kitchen if you’re bringing home raw meat, you have more dangerous stuff in your raw meat then what happens in the community lab. So community labs  do what are called Biosafety-level 1 work, which is basically stuff that could happen in a high school or any kind of school environment. So it’s very, very safe and, you know, the opportunity do something dangerous– the most dangerous things that happened in these labs are probably cutting yourself on glass or, you know, something like that. So the biology itself is not dangerous at all really but, again, it’s something to be very, very, you know, mindful of. And I think actually one of the most exciting parts about all this work is that the community labs, they’re doing this work in a very open, transparent and community based way. So, you know, this is kind of the opposite of, you know, the nefarious person working in some like hidden somewhere. So I think, you know, the ethos is all about, you know, sharing, about openness, transparency and really engaging the public in I think these really creative ways.

Anita Walker: And these are all ages?

David Kong: So yeah, I think in, you know, in our space certainly we welcome, we really are excited about welcoming young people. And again, we have a whole youth science initiative actually where we specifically engage with kids that are in– around middle school age to high school, but primarily middle school students. And certainly labs around the world have a really, really strong engagement with young people.

Anita Walker: You know, there are so many things in our current events that having even a basic knowledge of bioscience could inform our conversations about decisions we’re going to make up about our own future; whether it’s climate change or the genetically engineered baby that evidently came into being.

David Kong: Yeah, again, so this goes back to the whole point I think about biological literacy, right? You know, in general I think in our society, you know, a lot of the life sciences have we’ve been viewed through this angle of, you know, outbreak or contagion. Right? There’s a lot of fear and I think, you know, to me a project like Biota Beats– you know, one of my dear colleagues and mentors is George Church. There’s this wonderful book written by Ben Mezrich, a local Boston author, called “Woolly” all about their last effort to de-extinct woolly mammoth which actually has a lot of connections to climate change. The woolly mammoth is actually– there’s a whole story behind that but, you know, can actually play a strong role in reducing climate change if we were able to kind of release them back into Siberia. And so, you know, this book I think, you know, where George and his lab are really heroes. I mean they’re people that are doing really powerful work and I think those are stories. And, again, I look at the folks that are doing this work in this in this community bio movement, they’re in my mind heroes. I mean they’re folks that are at the frontlines really engaging in life sciences, bringing the public into it and telling stories that I think should be told. Right, so it’s that we can really, you know, celebrate science and celebrate all of the wonderful people that are doing this work around the world.

Anita Walker: I have one last question.

David Kong: Yeah, please.

Anita Walker: Are our microorganisms making music and we just can’t hear it?

David Kong: <laughs> It’s a really interesting question. They are. They are. There are all kinds of sounds that are happening throughout the body. You know, again sound is vibration so that, of course, is happening. And I think, you know, part of what we did with Biota Beats which I think is, you know, really one of the neat parts is we’re taking all this data and we’re making the music but you can actually– you know, we’ve got this kind of hip-hop producer that’s making some music. But you could do things with a symphony like, you know, what if we collaborated with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Right? That is something that might be happening later. What if we were able to, and this is actually something we did do, what if you were able to sample organisms not just from one person but from like a thousand people, okay? And actually as a part of iGEM, that giant science nerd fair I was telling you about, that’s exactly what we did. We sampled music from a thousand young people and created a song that we call the “UNI-VERSE,” which means one song. And the whole purpose is to celebrate this giant global community of people. Again, we’re in an era right now with a lot of nationalism, a lot of kind of fear and, you know, our goal with this– with this a little– this collaboration was to say why can’t we make a music or track a piece that’s celebrating global diversity through the diversity of the collective microbiome of this wonderful community of students, so.

Anita Walker: Can we put that song on our web site?

David Kong: We would love to do that. “UNI-VERSE,” let’s make it happen.

Anita Walker: All right, listen to that after you listen to the podcast. What a fantastic story you have to tell. David Sun Kong.

David Kong: <laughs> You got it.

Anita Walker: Thank you for joining us, another Creative Mind Out Loud.

David Kong: Thank you so, so much. It’s such an honor to be here.


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