Working at Manylabs,
an open science space

Published March 01 2017

Cere Davis showcasing her artwork at Manylabs PHOTOS COURTESY OF GARY MCDOWELL

Leaving the laboratory can be a daunting prospect for a variety of reasons, not in the least that the lab environment itself can provide a unique stimulating experience, with people around you carrying out experiments and discussing science. For this reason, when I decided to leave my postdoctoral stint at Tufts University to begin working full time for Future of Research, known as FoR, and follow my husband to San Francisco, where he was doing his medical residency, I wondered what kind of working environment I might end up in. It could have been at home or at a rented cooperative working space. In moving away from working at the bench, I could, as long as I had my computer, work pretty much anywhere, but it was important to me to have a desk outside my home and be surrounded by other people.

My boss, Jessica Polka, had passed along an opportunity she had spotted in a tweet for a residency in a unique working space called Manylabs. A nonprofit organization supported by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Manylabs aims to provide a space that brings together scientists, educators and “makers” who are working on open-source tools for science.

Transparency is central to the mission of FoR. Our mission is to make the research enterprise more transparent to junior researchers by analyzing and providing data on career outcomes, salaries, fellowships and training opportunities. We also are interested in fostering a scientific enterprise that recognizes, enjoys and benefits from the diverse ways science can be practiced and used to contribute to society, and in finding out more about the ways science happens outside academia. Additionally, FoR is dedicated to helping junior scientists practice open science safely, making the data, research and educational resources they produce freely available to improve transparency and assist in reproducibility. Therefore, Manylabs seemed like an ideal environment to maintain my comfort with the lab but also to explore a less conventional workspace. My application was successful. I am now in my second six-month residency.

Our space matches the stereotypical picture of a San Francisco cooperative working environment. We are housed in a warehouse on Folsom Street in the SoMa neighborhood, with desk space on the top floor, desk and lab space on the floor below, and more lab space and a large workshop space on the ground floor. The workshop space is a useful facility to have as I start to do more workshop/meeting-based work with the local scientific community. The residents hold open house events where we showcase our work and give demonstrations to the community.

There’s an incredible range of work going on at Manylabs. There are people using science in art, groups installing air- and water-quality monitors around the Bay Area, computational scientists creating open-source tools to map food webs, organizations driving open data-based environmental advocacy, and groups working on local community outreach around natural history. There are those developing innovative educational tools, such as kits for students to build to learn a variety of science and engineering lessons. There’s a movement toward facilitating citizen science in the lab spaces. Some of the work of the people at Foldscope takes place here too, in trying to distribute affordable devices for science around the world.

Eric Mandu gives a talk about an aquaponics system at the Manylabs Open House in October.

As it’s usually billed as a makerspace, I sometimes feel a little like an imposter to be hanging around working on policy and advocacy, but at the same time, everything that is happening here is also central to helping me understand the barriers to noninstitutional science and the different incentive structures that are directed more toward local educational or environmental effects than the traditional publication structure of academia.

Of course, the one thing that feels familiar is the search for funding. Being in a nontraditional space in science means looking for nontraditional funding sources or fundraising efforts. I am currently fortunate to be supported by a grant from the Open Philanthropy Project. Some in the space have to work elsewhere to support their nonprofit work, so there are people who I see through the day regularly and some I hardly see at all, depending on who has what kind of support for their work and when they can be around.

We get together weekly for “T++,” which is a reference to the computing language, but instead we have tea and discuss what is going on with our work. We also update the Manylabs website with monthly updates both for the public and for each other. It’s also a chance to see how we can collaborate with each other.

The major challenge for me has been moving from a hierarchical structure like academia into a very unstructured environment. No one technically is in charge. It has benefits and downsides. But that soon will change, as the group has hired a community manager to provide support for the organization and the people within it. Because we rarely are all together, it can be something of a challenge for everyone to know what everyone else is working on in great detail. The inability to overlap in time and space may limit possible collaboration. However, it will be exciting to have someone around all the time whose job is to know what is going on and what everyone is doing and to create connections within and outside the organization.

I travel a lot for my work now. I’ve been to Boston, New York, Edmonton, Calgary, Chicago and Washington, D.C., in recent months, but it’s great to have a home base and somewhere to keep my collection of frog mugs from my lab days. Being in an environment where people are doing things that are very different from my academic experience, where they all are looking to effect or advocate for change or educate the wider public, is really refreshing and helps me in some aspects of my work around advocacy. I’m looking forward to holding more workshops and satellite events around conferences that are in town to connect with the local scientific communities. Manylabs has been helpful in shaping my thoughts on the different ways science and society could interact and broadens my vision of a more encompassing scientific enterprise.

Gary McDowell Gary McDowell is the executive director of the nonprofit organization Future of Research and a resident at Manylabs.