(Don’t?) try this at home: DIY biotherapeutics are on the rise

Brinter, a modular bioprinter platform pending patent.

Last May, a YouTube video with a fascinating lede caught my eye: a biology student claimed to have cured himself of lactose intolerance through DIY gene therapy. He’d literally grown a cure, popped it in some capsules, and swallowed. Just a few months later, Stanford scientists posted the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine sequence on Github. And in the same time frame, Feles demoed their direct to consumer, all-in-one desktop science lab. Together, these puzzle pieces are building a picture of a more personalized and decentralized future of health. And COVID-19 has only accelerated the trend towards knowledge-sharing and accessible tools for biotherapeutics.

The DIY biology movement was already well underway before COVID-19. Curious students like Justin Atkin of the Thought Emporium wanted to take their health into their own hands. As a fellow lactose intolerant, I know such persistent health issues take a toll. I simply accepted my fate. But not Justin. He combined what he knew about cells and viruses to design a lactose intolerance cure — by growing a virus programmed to make the lactase enzyme. What makes Justin’s work powerful isn’t simply his success. It’s his commitment to making his insights accessible. He published a cheap, safe, and effective theoretical alternative on Creative Commons.

While bioscience knowledge is becoming more accessible through the open source movement, so are bioscience tools. While most scientific labs cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to outfit, a growing number of science-minded entrepreneurs are bringing equipment costs down. Feles developed a full science lab the size of a printer, priced at just $3,000. The accompanying software allows you to run reproducible experiments at the molecular level.

Feles was developed by biology students seeking to make biology experimentation accessible to everyone.

With the growth of the open source bioinformatics movement and the falling cost of scientific tools, Stanford’s publication of a reverse engineered Moderna vaccine sequence raised some natural questions: How many biology savvy people are as frustrated with limited COVID-19 vaccine access as I am with my lactose intolerance? How many self-empowered individuals would make their own vaccine? How feasible would that be now and in the future?

There is no question that COVID-19 has brought the future closer. Most notably, it has accelerated the trend towards open source scientific collaboration. The urgent needs to develop a COVID-19 vaccine unleashed a wave of scientists sharing their research. The Wall Street Journal reported a spike in publishing preliminary findings (prior to peer review) as researchers work to limit the number of dead ends their peers pursue.

Yet while the accessibility of knowledge has gone up vis-a-vis COVID-19 vaccine development, material costs are not trending downward as quickly. While Stanford scientists indicated use of typical biology lab materials for their reverse engineering, the vaccine production process is an entirely different matter. Unstable biological agents, like mRNA require careful handling, which does not lend itself to distributed manufacturing.

We also can expect some regression to the mean with scientific knowledge sharing. Solutions unvetted by clinical trials or peer review will continue to pose risks that the public may not fully appreciate. Yet the field appears to be becoming less risk averse. I expect a sustained shift towards rapid experimentation and sharing early insights.

While “nobody will be making an mRNA vaccine in their garage any time soon,” it may not be so far fetched in our lifetime. Just as 3D printers have become a household item, perhaps one day doctors will email us vaccine scripts that we run on our household bio-printer, eliminating all storage problems. When mutations arise, your doctor could email you a revised script. It may sounds futuristic, but Codex DNA could be as little a year away from going to market, and they aim to have their vaccine printer in every hospital, pharmacy, and doctor’s office. Then personalized medicine may know no limits. I look forward to seeing what Justin Atkin and the open source bioscience community do once this tech becomes direct to consumer.

Modern community: three levels being re-shaped by social distancing

Well before COVID-19 struck, the U.S. faced a loneliness epidemic: 61% of Americans reported feeling lonely prior to the pandemic. Compare this with a November 2020 study, where 80% of participants reported significant depressive symptoms. People have felt isolated because, well, they have been. Self-isolation and social distancing are our best prevention methods for mitigating COVID-19’s spread. While we protect our psychical health, people have also needed to find way to bolster mental health.

More than three in five Americans are lonely, with more and more people reporting feeling like they are left out, poorly understood and lacking companionship.

Elena Renken, NPR

In a testament to human resilience and ingenuity, with each social door that has closed, people have tested and tried a dozen alternative doors to open. I’ve seen social connection re-imagined at three levels: one-on-one, affinity groups, and the workplace. Below I share the trends that have warmed my heart to see, and my favorite examples within each.

Three levels of community

One-on-one

With space in our calendars, our collective memories have been stirred, to think of loved ones and old friends far and wide. We’ve felt the urge to connect with them using tools we almost forgot existed: telephones and pen and paper. Paper Source Inc.’s greeting-card sales jumped 1,200% following social distancing orders in March. And phone call volume surged more than internet use in the weeks following lock-down, as people wanted to hear the sound of each other’s voices.

Favorite for one-on-one: Lovepop cards are the notes I have both enjoyed sending the most and gotten the warmest responses for. In a world that feels mostly 2D right now because of excessive screen time, it’s revitalizing to inject some 3D into it.

Lovepop cards range from the lovely to the nerdy.

Affinity groups

Lockdowns across the globe have re-shaped and consolidated our social networks. People have focused on connecting with those they have the most in common with over people that are geographically near. This includes revived interest in hobbies and affinity groups. In Ireland, over 250,000 people joined Facebook hobby groups following lock-down orders, with 30,000 people joining Irish Gardening alone.

When social interactions moved online, only certain kinds of relationships seemed to survive.

Dr Marlee Bower, loneliness researcher, University of Sydney

While incumbent social media has done well, new platforms for online social interaction have proliferated. Clubhouse has enjoyed huge engagement. I’ve been invited to many Sims-esque social spaces, from Gather to Kumospace.

Favorite for affinity groups: Toucan wins for small (less than 15 people) social e-events. It’s essentially a virtual cocktail room where you can move between different social circles. Among the ‘organic’ platforms that permit free movement, it has been the easiest to interact with. However, the organic movement of participants starts to feel chaotic if the event gets too big.

Toucan lets you mix and mingle across different audio circles in the same event.

The workplace

Remote work has changed much of how we communicate with coworkers. For many, social distance has also created emotional distance. In a study by Sharehold, mental health was the top-reported factor that impacted employees after New York’s March 2020 stay-at-home orders (due to COVID-19). Another international survey showed 40% of employers felt concern for how remote work might impact workers’ mental health.

Many employers have tried to address our yearning for informal chats and ‘micro-interactions’ with new tools (Slack, Zoom) and new norms. My company started including personal checkins at the beginning of Monday stand-ups. And working sessions quickly transitioned from ‘business-first’ to ‘catch-up first’.

Favorite for the workplace: My company instituted quarterly ‘cafes’ with trivia pulled from our personal Readmes and Slack. It gamifies getting to know each other and is full of laughs.

Community in the long run

Loneliness experts hypothesize that people will recover from the lock-down-induced loneliness spike and return to their previous baseline over the long-term. So while we’ve explored new ways to engage in community virtually, nothing can supplant the human need to be with one another in person.

We are creatures of habit. . . I think we will revert back to our social groups [in the long run].

Michelle Lim, loneliness expert

Winter is coming: 10 must-haves for quarantine survival

This summer, as we broke out of our quarantine cocoons, we all became nature enthusiasts as we sought out wide-open spaces. The air was sweet and social distancing was easy. But as the leaves are changing, so is the COVID case count trend line — and not for the better. Seeing the Wall in the north signals the worst, and we must be ready for it. Like any epic sequel, we have learned a thing or two since facing the last big bad. Consider last winter’s self-isolation a practice round. This time, you’re going to be ready. With this survival kit, you can stay healthy all winter long, body, mind, and soul.

Body

Your physiological well-being is tier one on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Here are three things beyond sheltering in place that will keep you healthy this winter.

1. Roborock

If the pandemic has showed us nothing else, hygiene and health go hand-in-hand. The Roborock S6 MaxV robot vacuum and mop literally does all the dirty work for you by keeping your floors gleaming. With the bad germs gone, you can fully enjoy the Great Indoors.

2. Fitbod

Whether you love working out or hate it, Fitbod really does fit any user. It generates custom workouts based on (1) how often you want to workout, (2) your available equipment, and (3) your freshest muscle groups. You can also adjust the suggest workout modules as you go, so it can truly fit the time you have available and your fitness level. Because of Fitbod, I exercise more than I ever have before: three times a week for 20 minutes. My mother would be proud.

3. Baldor

Baldor is a New York restaurant supplier that started delivering direct-to-consumer at the start of the pandemic. It’s higher quality than Whole Foods, yet less expensive. You can buy European, preservative-free canned tuna and Hudson Valley farm CSA boxes. Their “peak season” and “local” buttons point you to the freshest food available and help you support local businesses. The minimum order size is $200, which isn’t hard to meet if you freeze some of your order. Watch out for item sizes — some SKUs are definitely intended for high-volume restaurants!

Now that you’ve got a plan for your physical health, it’s time think about your mind. (So meta.)

Mind

Boredom ranks as the most common quarantine complaint. But your livingroom doesn’t need to be where creativity goes to die. Below are sources of stimulation and tools that provide some of the interactive flexibility that you had when working in-person.

4. An Ipad + Apple Pencil

When you’re trying to map out an idea or ideate with a team, sometimes you just need a whiteboard. Using tools like Microsoft OneNote or Google Jamboard can enable visual collaboration in real time. And if you want to draw things other people will recognize, mouse scribbles just don’t cut it. An Apple Pencil instantly gives you the same articulation as a whiteboard.

5. Zoom virtual backgrounds

This may seem like a small one, but I think I’ve been around the world and back with all the creative backgrounds I’ve seen and employed. It keeps viewers stimulated in a time of screen fatigue.

6. Books

Remember those? They are what people read before online news and Netflix. Take the opportunity this winter to rediscover what’s on your book shelf, join a book club, or renew your library card. And if you’re not afraid of endless screen time, the New York Public library has an extensive e-book collection.

Now that your body and mind are feeling like well-oiled machines, it’s time to think about the things that make life worth living, the things that feed your soul.

Soul

As I’m sure you learned in the first quarantine, operating at your best takes more than just a healthy body and engaged mind. Below are three things that nourish the soul.

7. WakingUp app

Bestselling author Sam Harris created a guided meditation platform called Waking Up. Through it, you can both practice meditation, and learn the theory behind the practice. It offers a 30-day free trial beginners course that introduces many types of mindfulness meditation, along with access to other mindfulness content. If there’s anything we all need after the crazy year of 2020, it’s help clearing our minds and centering ourselves.

Our minds are all we have. They are all we have ever had. And they are all we can offer others. 

– Sam Harris, best-selling author and neuroscientist

8. Pod buddies

Introvert or extrovert, relationships are rejuvenating. I almost forgot people came in three dimensions until I started meeting a pod body every other week. And now, the world feels a bit more human.

9. A furry pet

If you haven’t yet joined the animal adoption bandwagon, it’s not too late! Even the CDC recommends pet ownership for its physical, emotional, and interpersonal benefits.

The trifecta

There’s one product that offers physical engagement, mental stimulation, and soul-stirring joy rolled all into one.

10. Oculus Quest

The Oculus Quest‘s Beat Saber offers immersive entertainment, that gets you moving and brings the inexplicable soul highs of electronic music. With the Quest’s new wireless capabilities, it’s a huge upgrade from the Oculus Rift.

Ready Player One was closer than we thought, and with the state of the world in 2020, it’s perfect timing.

Ready for Round 2

Tie a bandana around your head and put on some boxing wraps, because you are ready for the next round of lock down. God speed.

Rising like the phoenix: The rebirth of NYC restaurants

“We had to keep reinventing the business every week to two weeks.”

Caitlyn Morrissey, store manager. Source: The New York Times

New York small businesses have seen the full financial force of the pandemic, and restaurants have born the brunt of it. Roughly 7,000 NYC small businesses have shut down permanently since the start of the pandemic. The New York Times reported that a third of these small business closures are restaurants. So when I see a tattooed old man out with his DeWalt circular saw and 2x4s procured from the Flatiron Home Depot two blocks away, building outdoor seating as structurally sound as any residential building, my hat goes off to him. This post is a homage to those who have recreated the restaurant.

Reinvention: Not just by restaurant owners

We’ve heard various narratives about the “multiplier effect” of a job. Once one person is employed, they have money to spend that helps employ someone else. The same is true of restaurants setting up outdoor seating. From local contractors to florists to set designers looking for very off-Broadway work, skilled builders have redeployed expertise for the local restaurant. Design firms like Rockwell Group and Pink Sparrow have mocked up modular, prefabricated platforms, barriers, and parklets — which they may make available as DIY kits. And of course, most scrappy New York restaurateurs literally scrapped something together.

Best of NYC outdoor seating

In celebration of NYC creativity, we’ve identified a few outdoor dining “winners” who categorically stood out.

Most creative social distancing: Cafe du Soleil, French cafe, Upper West Side

The Covid bubble is real.

Best outdoor indoor seating: Kyuramen, ramen house, Flushing

Am I on the outside looking in, or on the inside looking out?

Best use of public infrastructure: Hudson Clearwater, American restaurant, West Village

Public seating upgrade or restaurant oeuvre, you decide.

Most European-inspired: Le Zie, Italian restaurant, Chelsea

The closest thing to a vacation you’ll get this year.

Most authentic: Smithfield Hall, sports bar, Flatiron

Sometimes, all you need is a nice, cool pint.

Mo’ seating, mo’ permanent

It’s not just restaurants that are allowed to apply for street seating —it’s anyone with a ground-floor store front. And it’s not just a pandemic “perk” now to dine outside. Our mayor wants to embrace our new sidewalk cafe seating year-round. While our city is evolving out of necessity, some of it will be for the better. Especially for all the new puppy owners who can bring their four-legged family members out for lunch and dinner.

On a personal note, it’s great to see the Keynsian multiplier in full effect, increasing the velocity of money and driving trickle-out economics. As in we’re trickling out into the streets.

The shape of COVID-19: NYC’s testing data to date

On the eve of Phase 2 reopening in NYC, New Yorkers have a lot to look back on and a lot to look forward to. Since the start of the pandemic, between 8 and 11% of confirmed and suspected NYC cases ended in death. At the same time, the total number of confirmed new cases was only 81 on June 19th and has been declining across the city. So as we ready ourselves for reopening, we need to take a look at the trends to answer that burning question: is a haircut worth the risk just yet?

COVID-19 data. Source: nyc.gov

One month ago: A tail of three cities

One month ago, when Mayor Cuomo extended NY “PAUSE” and postponed Phase 1 reopening to May 28th, New York got a signal that we were still in the danger zone. But why? Our R0, the rate of contagion spread, was consistently below 1 (the critical threshold). A look at the data shows that quality of our data and, thus, our ability to accurately estimate the true R0, varied widely by neighborhood.

Comparing just three different parts of the city — Chelsea/NoMad, Flatbush, and East New York — points to very different testing trends. These neighborhoods could be fairly described as high, medium, and low income, respectively. While Chelsea and NoMad (zip code 10001) saw the total number of tests per day rising from April 1 to May 20, Flatbush and East New York (zip codes 11203 and 11239) actually saw their daily testing rate *fall* during the same period. Although the number of positive cases dropped steadily over time in all three areas, the rate of change (indicated by the line graphs) for testing and positive test cases trend downward together in Flatbush and East New York. This suggests under-reporting of cases. The Chelsea and Nomad rates of change, by contrast, show an acceleration of testing and declining growth in positive diagnoses. With bigger sample sizes and more data points, we can confidently say Chelsea and Nomad had falling R0s.

Since Phase 1: More universal testing and better results

Today, looking back on the two weeks since Phase 1 began, there are sustained signs of improvement. Across our three sample zip codes, we saw total case levels flatten while total testing continued to increase, giving us confidence that our R0 was truly falling across the different locales.

Chelsea/Nomad, Flatbush, and East New York all saw significant growth in testing during Phase 1. As total tests grew, the total positive case curve continued to flatten. Source: James Wallace’s analysis of of gov.nyc health data

The data indicate that targeted interventions in areas like East New York meaningfully boosted the rate of testing. Whereas testing rates hovered around 30 per day for all of April and May, for one day in June, shortly after Phase 1 reopening, testing jumped to about 150.

These signs bode well. So should we be encouraged? On balance, yes. Even in our biggest recent gatherings, the Black Lives Matter protests, protesters have had each other’s backs, wearing face masks and gloves and offering hand sanitizer. There may be pockets of regression as Gen Zers flock back to bars sans masks, but with new cleaning and hygiene norms everywhere, I remain cautiously optimistic that our city will heal.

Today: Still worth taking a different “PAUSE”

Despite the positive recent trends, the aftershock will be felt for a long time. Nearly as many New Yorkers have died from COVID-19 as live in the 10001 zip code. But very few of these deaths were in Chelsea and Nomad. Flatbush experienced hundreds of deaths, and East New York experienced seven times the number of deaths per 100,000 that Chelsea and Nomad did.

Source: nyc.gov

It is worth pausing to think through what exactly needs to change in order for the darkness of a pandemic case map to not reflect the darkness of neighborhood residents’ skin.

Source: nyc.gov

Top five post-COVID-19 predictions

How will COVID-19 leave society changed?

New York’s new normal

Each day as I step outside, keeping at a social distance, I am reminded of how not normal New York City life is right now. Empty sidewalks, save for the homeless and a few runners. Wary looks behind masked faces. Empty roads and fresh air. Supply shortages and long grocery store lines, for those who brave them. A sudden interest in the movie Contagion. This is the new normal. And when this passes, I wonder, what will the new new normal look like? I offer five predictions about how society, government, and individuals will change — or not change, as the case may be:

  1. Niche media will become more mainstream than mass media
  2. Everyone will emerge with a new survival skill
  3. Asthma cases will drop, as the air quality improves with less pollution
  4. Both parties will take the crisis as evidence that their principles are the right ones
  5. Social activism will see a significant jump

I predict these changes, because they are already underway. Here’s what I’ve observed in the last few weeks of quarantine:

1. Niche media will become more mainstream than mass media

John Krasinski and Steve Carell, Some Good News, Episode 1

In the early days of corona virus news, national “reporting” was a loose term — you could read article upon article and learn almost nothing. As the severity of the situation became clear, hand-wavy vagaries just weren’t enough to keep us informed about how to stay safe. My peers and neighbors quickly started relying on a narrower set of localized and trusted sources for the intel we needed on the pandemic. The Daily by the New York Times became the most pervasive, providing a combo of expert advice and front-line reporting. As New York became the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, and no national support emerged, Gothamist emerged as one of the best sources of informative and actionable coverage. They gave locals a source of food security by reporting on Baldor, a restaurant supplier turned direct-to-consumer, with higher quality and better prices than anything on Instacart. The TLDR from national news outlets, by contrast, was just ‘food is getting harder to buy… countries should do something about that.

The same-y-ness, shallowness, and sensationalism of mainstream news has spurred other niche counter-movements in media. Some Good News with John Krasinski has brought the local global, featuring positive COVID-19 stories of hope, solidarity, and recovery from around the country and the world. He’s married curated, hand-made content contributions with global icon pop-ins, notably Steve Carell and Lin Manuel Miranda. At 16 million views for Episode 1, SGN’s popularity has blown every prime time show out of the water. In effect, channels like SGN are making YouTube more mainstream than ABC or CBS.

2. Everyone will emerge with a new survival skill

First quarantine-inspired, homemade bread

All the twenty-somethings of New York have discovered their kitchens, perhaps for the first time, as take-out has become more of a luxury than a norm. “I’m confident we can survive the apocalypse now,” my husband smiled, with a sigh of relief, when our 50-pound flour order arrived from a Queens wholesaler. He made his first-ever homemade bread. I have picked up running and stair climbing in lieu of a gym, and could easily make it to any bridge of the island if needed. All we need now is to take some streaming karate lessons, and we will be ready to kick some zombie butt if a worse kind of outbreak happens.

3. Asthma cases will drop, as the air quality improves with less pollution

U.S. cities with the best and worst air quality, Realtor.com

Few cars on the road and planes in the air doesn’t just mean we can wander the streets and tarmacs unfettered. It means we can breath deep and feel refreshing, mountaintop-quality air, even in the middle of New York City. This can only be positive for children as they develop. As an urban-dweller who developed chronic rhinitis at a young age, I can’t remember what normal breathing feels like. While some argue impaired smelling is a benefit in New York City, I still hope young New Yorkers today continue to reap the benefits of our reprieve from pollution. In a dream world, we would mandate the sunset of combustion engine vehicles and allow only electric vehicles within city limits. I won’t hold my breath for New York to be the vanguard of new clean air policies, but maybe California can pave the way.

4. Both parties will take the crisis as evidence that their principles are the right ones

Massachusetts Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, WGBH

In response to the coronavirus crisis, Republicans and Democrats alike have taken refuge in their respective ideologies. Conservative groups have mobilized to demand that the U.S. re-open the economy, while liberals have reminded us that people *are* the economy. The GOP’s economy-before-people stance has led to a temporary demand for big government, but no significant shift in their social safety net policy stances. Democrats, by contrast, consider this crisis as evidence that our safety net policies are already far too weak. While the 2020 election campaigns are essentially on hold for now, I expect to see renewed campaign efforts in the fall that will amount to a battle of ideologies for what we want post-COVID-19 America to look like.

5. Social activism will see a significant jump

Change.org highlights COVID-19-related petition victories

This crisis has led to a number of spotlights on companies and institutions reaping concentrated benefits while trying to pass on the pandemic’s costs to the larger populations they serve. WeWork is still charging tenants in cities with shelter-in-place orders. Amazon fired a protesting employee who called out unsafe working conditions following a streak of in-warehouse COVID-19 cases. When the stakes are life and dealth, right and wrong become fairly black-and-white. It also gives people more to fight for. We’re seeing more masses of people taking action. Millions have signed petitions through Change.org, and many more are organizing and making their voices heard. I expect this momentum to continue as the aftershocks of the crisis continue to reverberate.

Predictions unfurled

For better or for worse, this crisis will have a long tail, not just through the presence of the virus, but also in how our society is changed by the crisis. The five trends above are already under way, and will build as we adapt and reshape our social systems in the wake of COVID-19.

The Index Card Summary of “The Upside of Stress”

In the era of COVID-19, emotional, physical, and financial stress have become inescapable for the foreseeable future. And with every time of hardship, we have a choice about how to respond to it. At least that is the premise of The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You and How to Get Good at It by Kelly McGonigal, PhD. Her research-based advice can be summed up in 3 simple points:

  1. There are three types of stress responses:
    • Fight or flight response
    • Challenge response
    • Tend and befriend response
  2. You can influence which stress response you experience
  3. Choosing a more helpful response is beneficial in virtually all circumstances

Below is a brief dive into the findings and advice behind each point above.

1. There are three types of stress responses

Stress responses come in three flavors: fight or flight, challenge response, and tend and befriend.

Fight or flight is the best known but most maladaptive, because it primes you to either fight or run — neither of which is appropriate if triggered in most modern settings. (Fist fights with people not observing social distancing is not advisable).

By contrast, the challenge response is a physiological reaction to stress that increases self-confidence, motivates action, and helps you learn from your experience. A challenge response makes you feel focused, not fearful, and creates a sense of flow that allows you to rise to the occasion.

And finally, the tend and befriend response releases stress hormones that increase courage, motivate care-giving, and enhance empathy, leading to strengthened social relationships.

While fight or flight is a self-protective response, the challenge response and tend and befriend response produce more pro-social outcomes.

2. You can influence which stress response you experience

How you think about stress can directly determine how your body processes it. If you perceive stress as a threat, you are more likely to have a fight or flight response, which negatively impacts both your psyche and physiology. Alternatively, if you have an optimistic framing of stress, invoking the challenge response or tend and befriend response, your body will release the types of stress hormones that help you recover and learn.

You can choose to think or act in ways that are known to trigger positive stress responses. Learning a new point of view has been shown to transform the stress response. For example, journalling for five minutes about the hardest experience of your life and what you learned from it that later improved your life can lead to a lasting improvement to life satisfaction and resilience. Specific actions, like volunteering for a charity, can invoke a positive stress response by shifting from self-focus to larger-than-self-focus.

3. Choosing a more helpful response is beneficial in virtually all circumstances

If you harness your stress response to help you engage and grow, over time you can experience “stress inoculation”: your brain will become conditioned to seeing stress as an opportunity to learn. McGonigal has found measurable benefits across social circumstances and psychological states. Adversity creates resilience and correlates with higher satisfaction.

What you can do today

Consider what your narrative about stress is, your behaviors around stress, and how those make you feel. What beliefs can you trade up for ones that give you hope, bravery, resilience, or a sense of connection? Such small shifts in mindset can lead to a cascade of effects. So rather than changing a million things in your life, change your mindset, and the rest will flow.