An Evolutionary Biologist’s Weekend Out at Science Hack Day


By: Benu Atri

Science Hack Day is a 2-day-all-night event where anyone excited about making weird, silly or serious things with science get together at a venue to see what they can create within 24 consecutive hours. People form multidisciplinary teams over the course of a weekend: particle physicists team up with school kids, scientists join forces with musicians, and molecular biologists collaborate with electrical circuit building enthusiasts.

This excellent video from SHD-2013 beautifully captures the essence of the event:

On October 23-24 2015, the 6th annual Science Hack Day took place at the GitHub headquarters in San Francisco. I was very fortunate to have been invited to attend as a science ambassador. Being a part of this accomplished group of folks was incredible! Check out the bios of all the other ambassadors. As an ambassador, I was to participate in the event, give an optional science hack related talk and later share my experience online. I am writing this blog as a collection of my impressions of this must-attend, amazingly geeky fun event.

Twitter love from SAGANet.org

You can follow the organizers of SHD, San Francisco on Twitter: Arfon Smith, Ian F., Jun Axup, Matt Biddulph, Rose Broome, and, of course, the global director of Science Hack Day Ariel Waldman.

Ambassadors’ lunch:

A day before the event started, the organizers had arranged for a wonderful lunch for all the ambassadors at the Plant Café, on Pier 3. The invited ambassadors were scientists from all over the US, and even outside (Vietnam, Chile, and Slovenia). We all got to know each other, chat a little about our areas of research, our labs, etc. as we enjoyed some healthy, delicious local lunch.

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Science Hack Day 2015, Ambassadors and organizers lunch

Day 1:

Saturday morning, I got to the GitHub headquarters. Imagine being welcomed into a reception room that is a replica of the Oval Office that leads into a large space with very quirky dive bar, or coffee shop and garage like feel. Several bean bag chairs lying all around, large screens with the logo of Science Hack Day, 3D printers, electrical prototyping gears, Arduinos, and electronics toolkits ready to opened. All of it made the venue feel like the perfect workshop space for a weekend of building and hacking!

Before I go any further, there was a table to write your name tags. Sure, name tags are important, but why would I specifically mention that? That’s because, this was not your run-of-the-mill write-your-name-on-an-Avery sticker-with-a-black-marker table. There was a full set of color markers and a bucket full of space themed stickers and logos, and one could go crazy with creativity writing their name tag! Yes, I realize I am getting carried away, so here is the first draft of my work:

nametag

An un-boring name tag!! Ooh and at the back was the complete schedule for easy reference. Loving it already!

Next high point were the breakfast arrangements, the very appreciated and delightful omelet bar and coffee!! The first on the agenda were the invited lightning talks on different topics including mine on the evolution of bacterial antibiotic resistance, applications of planetary physics data, compiling together solar drawings, coral reefs, applying locomotion from biology to robots, and so on. Afterward, was a lightning pitch round, where one would pitch their awesome hack idea in exactly ‘42’ seconds (Could it get any geekier than this?). Some of the ideas were amazing, for e.g. a sensor for the health of houseplants, a portable planetarium, a hoodie with security features, studying lasers and fog, others sounded impossible like the Sorting Hat from Harry Potter. And (spoiler alert!) at the end something awesome came out of these ideas.

Once the pitches were over, it was time for lunch and team building. It was amazing to see how people interested in the same ideas found each other and formed their teams flawlessly and in these little hack niches, ideas flowed. Everyone with a willingness to contribute or learn was welcome. You did not have to be an expert. Although, my work in microbiology had inspired my hack ideas, which I presented in the lightning talk, I found myself very drawn to an electronics project – building animal sound-oscillators. Initially, there were only three people, but by the end of the event, our team had seven adults and a kid – who, by the way, was an extremely fast learner (what took us two days, he finished in 30 minutes!). Just to give you an idea of how this event brings together diverse people through their love of science, our team comprised of a NASA scientist, a musician who likes to tinker with electronics as a hobby, an evolutionary biologist, an HR manager with an undergrad in life sciences, and two college students.

All through the rest of the day (and night), everyone was diligently working on his or her hacks. Now and then someone would take a break to check out other cool ideas taking shape or simply gaze at the glue gun candy sculptures or the 3D printer printing out custom parts for someone’s hack or Science Hack Day logos.

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3D printed Science Hack Day logo

Meanwhile, our team was testing out our finished circuits. On connecting everything in the right manner and upon shining a flashlight on the photo-sensor, the oscillator would make a sound. To us, it’d be a moment of pure joy; I also see how cacophonous it must have sounded to the folks around us. In fact, one hilarious reaction from someone was – ‘Oh, now I get it. You have successfully replicated the sound of nails on a chalkboard’. Before we knew it, it was already time for dinner and an awesome nighttime activity – stargazing! Despite the heavy clouds, everyone enjoyed the break to look at an almost full moon (instead of the stars) with a 10” telescope and chat with other attendees. There was an option to sleepover at the venue, which was great for a lot of people who wanted to work on their codes or hacks and continued to do so until late in the night.

Day 2:

Next morning, while we ate breakfast, the organizers played the movie Big Hero 6. I had seen the movie before but in perspective of all the robotics and hacking and making around me; I enjoyed watching this movie again. This day was also the day for finishing touches, wrapping up your hacks and registering for a final presentation. The demos were scheduled at 13:37. How eleet!! (See what I did there?). It was mind-blowing to see how some things that were just ideas a day ago were a finished project now. With meticulous hard work, probably nightlong coding and collaborative team effort, we got to see some of the coolest things. A kids’ drone backpack, 3D printing with candies, an Arduino ultrasonic synthesizer, a security hoodie, visualizing the 1906 SF earthquake, our #ElectricJungle hack (more like an alien forest by the end but still really cool!), and yes, the Harry Potter Sorting Hat! There were more than 30 demos of the finished hacks. And finally, were the much-awaited awards with categories like Best Use of Data, Best Data Visualization, Best in Show, Best Design Awards. All the winners got very cool ‘SCIENCE’ medals for their hacks. In the end, Ariel Waldman and the other organizers closed the event with a thank you to the sponsors, everyone that helped run the show from behind the curtains and all the attendees. Then, it was time to say goodbye.

Pics of our hack #ElectricJungle: https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0B1El45uwI7eGbWNDTDQ3UWM4SUE&usp=sharing

Closing thoughts:

An event like this is never a single person’s effort. It takes collective efforts brought together by a single end in mind, in this case, it was the celebration of science. Someone had mentioned in the beginning that it is entirely possible that one comes to Science Hack Day with one thing in mind and ends up doing something completely different, precisely what happened to me. I had never attended a hack day before, and I learned a lot of new things. I had a great time talking to other people, their hacks, the lightning talks and pitches, and, of course, the hack demos. On that note, I am very thankful to the organizers and Ariel Waldman for inviting me to the event and letting me be a part of something so awesome. I sure hope to be back next year for another mind-blowing Science Hack Day.

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The amazing people of an amazing event