TED Conversations

Yu-An Chen


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Why don't we have more "Kitchen" scientists?

When people hear the word "Science", they often think of fancy labs with high technology equipment, and this is not too far off-- In my Bioelectricity class, for example, we learned about patch clamp experiments, which use tiny electrical recorders called micropipettes to record electrical currents from single ion channels in cells, and the voltage clamp experiments performed by Hodgkin and Huxley, in which they managed to thread wires through a single axon! These experiments, and a lot of other important experiments outside this field, require a lot of expensive machinery, chemicals and facilities. But does science always have to be a luxury? For example, instead of using expensive fish-eye lens for photography experiment, we could simply buy a much cheaper door viewer to get the same barrel distortion effect. Or you can go online and buy kits to record from brains, or if you live in New York City, you can join the community laboratory called GenSpace, take workshops, trainings, or can work on our own projects!

How do you think we can help science become more accessible to everyone? The more people, both amateur and professional, who contribute to science, the more ideas will be created!


Closing Statement from Yu-An Chen

Thank you all for the comments and suggestions. I got to know a lot of new resources by going through the comments. It seems like most people will be glad to see more kitchen scientists. We can start with turning off TV and explore more about the world. Science is all around us, if one has the heart, anyone can become a kitchen scientist.

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  • Feb 10 2012: Many of the greatest scientific minds have done their most prolific work from beyond the bounds of 'the institution.' Perhaps this in vacuo approach was key to their success. Rewind to 1975, computer science was largely limited to well endowed research institutions. That is, until Bill Gates developed software in his dorm room that changed the way computer science is done. In 1856 a little known Austrian Monk, Gregor Mendel, unlocked the secrets of modern genetics…at a monastery with a pea garden. And then there was that patent clerk who couldn't get a job at a university…until he revolutionized our knowledge of space and time.

    Indeed, the very notion that great science must be both expensive and selective, as far as who gets to do the science or receives the funding, is one that comes only from within the institutions that create those limits. It is far more likely, however, that someone will be able to 'think outside of the box' if they are actually outside of the box.

    Well funded labs think: If I have the funds to spend on my experiments, then the most expensive experiments will get me the best data or highest impact publication, therefore, I must use the "top of the line" equipment and reagents. This is flawed thinking because often "top of the line" really does not yield the most elegant or revolutionary results, just the most expensive. Someone without institution funds will be more creative in re-engineering equipment (Backyard Brains founders come to mind) and reagents to meet their specific needs, or think very deeply about the best questions to ask, and the optimal experiment that can answer that question. The end result: more money does not equal better science, actually, it may even inhibit the scientific creative spirit. But, I'm definitely happy to purchase some $800 digital pipets from ebay for $50 because the scientists at Pfizer couldn't figure out how to replace the batteries.
    • W T 100+

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      Feb 11 2012: Very, very insightful....you have lots of common sense...I enjoyed reading your comment.

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