Andrew E. Pelling biohacker & TED Fellow

Andrew bio image

In February I attended a HubTalk with Andrew Pelling, University of Ottawa biohacker and 2016 TED Fellow. He was there to talk about taking risks. What really got my attention, apart from the fact that he had successfully grown a human ear out of an apple, was his emphasis on the importance of play and curiosity for its own sake. These activities should be spontaneous, motivating and FUN! He also spoke about the need to include creatives from all fields in his lab – not a conventional approach to science. Andrew was gracious, funny, humble and insightful. There is so much to say about him so please check out these links for more

At the HubTalk, Andrew demonstrated his willingness to take risks by introducing what he thought was a crazy idea: pHacktory. What happened next highlights Ottawa’s readiness to take innovation to the next level. I am really excited and honored to give you the scoop on Andrew and pHacktory.

Why Ottawa?
Good question. I actually applied for my job six months late when I happened to see an old job ad. At the time I was living in London, England and I was getting a lot of pressure to stay there in that position. But I was pretty tired of London, especially after living in Toronto and LA. London is pretty insane. It’s a great place to visit but after living there for many years it really wore on me. I was surprised because I never thought that would happen.

I wasn’t really intending to come to Ottawa. I just happened to see this really old expired ad and I sent my job package in anyways. I gotta hand it to the guy who saw it because he recognized right away that I might be the person they were looking for. It’s just serendipity.

I always liked Ottawa because it was the antithesis to these big crazy cities and I was ready for change. Something closer to nature. A little more relaxed. It’s sometimes a little too relaxed around here [laughs]. That was in 2008.

What do you think about Ottawa now?
I have a nice job because I travel all around the world and I get my fill of the big crazy cities. Then I get to live in Ottawa by the river and I can run to work. It’s a really nice balance. I have discovered all these great people here. They don’t get any exposure. There is some really cool stuff happening and no one knows about it. Photographers, architects, like Manuel Báez, who did the ceiling installation at the HUB, and others. Community stuff like the various makerspaces and Maker Junior. People doing their thing. This is what I like about New York City; everybody is just doing their thing. We have that spirit in Ottawa but it’s not in your face and it needs a bit of growth.

Can you tell me about your appointment as a TED Fellow?
The TED thing has just made life insane in a really good way. They warned us it would open up opportunities that you would have never imagined and so far so good. It’s really true. Suddenly you have this massive global platform and the backing of TED. There is so much more than just giving a TED talk. The incredible network of TED Fellows and the support and mentorship from the TED organization…it’s amazing.

In some ways it has changed the way I do science because for the first time ever a granting agency came to me. So that’s transformative. It makes life lot easier and opens up projects that I didn’t think I could have done or wouldn’t have been able to fund. The incredible network and range of TED fellows breeds collaborations between all sorts of people and disciplines. The support of the TED network really allows the Fellows to amplify their ideas.


Let’s talk about your latest idea: pHacktory?
I was giving a talk at the HUB about taking risks in my career. When I was putting the talk together I really wanted to demonstrate this to the audience, I didn’t want to just talk about it. So I thought I would throw out a crazy idea I hadn’t even thought carefully about. I put up this image of what I imagined pHacktory might look like and said ‘what would happen if I put my lab on the street?’

I had no plans. Literally no plans. I didn’t think it would go anywhere. I just wanted to show that I could take a crazy idea and share it with a prominent crowd of people and the response I got was insane. I’ve been totally surprised by the amount of support I have received for this initiative. Communities and individuals across the city are stepping up to help out and pHacktory is really looking like it might become a reality.

So what is pHacktory?
This would be a street level lab, studio and workshop for amplifying community ideas through craft, serendipity and curiosity. We would curate these activities, put out calls for those crazy, audacious and transformative ideas. We want to hear about ideas that make our skin quiver. The ideas where you don’t know how they’re going to get done, but if they were achieved they would change everything. And it could be in fashion, it could be in design, architecture, it could be something scientific whatever, I don’t care, as long as it’s that type of idea. We would offer an open, shared space to make it happen, along with resources and expertise. We would reach out to our partners and communities to bring in the expertise when needed to work on particular projects.

There would likely be a café and boutique on the public side of it, a lounge, documentation of previous projects, etc. Really, a flexible space for events of all sorts. Of course there would be access to the labs where all this experimenting is happening, where curiosity is valued for curiosities sake. This is a place where failure is ok and taking risks is the goal.

What is it about the idea that makes everyone so excited?
It’s obviously something that everyone has been looking for because I am hearing this excitement from people on the street to major corporations, hospitals and institutions in town. It’s a sense that this is community driven, that anybody, kids or adults, could walk in at any point, and its street level. I think people want that front row seat to cutting edge design and research and are tired of it being locked up in ivory towers and only hearing about it through the New York Times. I want to level the playing field. Kids come up with the greatest ideas. Can we leverage that? Can we wrap diverse communities into this? We are going to create this playground and do cool stuff and whether it has an application or not is irrelevant. pHacktory is the place where we will tackle those truly audacious, worthwhile and wildly transformative ideas. At any given time we will probably have between 3 and 5 curated major projects on the go. And each project would involve really creative and curious people from the community, companies and institutions working together. And I think where the magic is really going to happen is when these separate teams start chatting. When they are hanging out, inventing new ideas and are working in a space that gives them permission to try anything. Those unpredictable outcomes are what I’m really excited about.

And there is real value here. This is an opportunity for real partnerships between people from communities and institutions. pHacktory is a place to learn from experts and facilitate mentorship, teaching and learning and passing on knowledge. We’re really talking about apprenticeship in many ways. This is what pHacktory is all about.

You often mention importance of play and creativity. Can you talk about that?
You can see my office looks like a dumpster blew up. This is how I play. I am not building next gen technologies in here. I am goofing around with old CD-ROM drives and motors and making fun things. This is what’s so fundamental to creativity – I don’t know what I am going to make out of all these parts, but I am going to sit here for an hour and will invent something. How about a plant that spins around when I send it Facebook messages. It’s totally stupid but you have to go through the process of ‘what do I need from this thing, how do I design it, how do I code it, how do I put it together, how do I make it talk to Facebook?’ This is creative problem solving and it’s a skill that requires training, repetition and practice.

That is what’s so important, and what is missing, from education in many ways. ‘I am going to give you something you have never been exposed to, how are you going to solve that?’ In today’s world we encounter this all the time. We need people who know how to think rather than memorize. Letting myself play keeps my mind fluid. My lab is full of garbage and junk and the students all know to go play with it. I don’t care what they make with it. Just make something. It helps you to be flexible, nimble and creative. We lose curiosity because we are not allowed to just play. Play is a critical part of my scientific practice. It is absolutely essential to what we do. The list of discoveries that have come out of my lab because of play is getting really long.

So how did you keep you sense of play alive? How did you protect it?
It’s how I started this lab. It was almost an act of defiance in some way. I had no interest in running a conventional research lab. I figured that if people didn’t like it then I would probably lose my job. I thought that would be fine since I am still young and I knew I’d figure out something else to do with myself. I knew I would regret not taking the chance to create a really unconventional lab.

Through my career I’ve encountered so many professors near retirement who would say things like ‘now I can do what I really want to do’. I was like there is no f**king way I am spending thirty years doing what I don’t want to do, so that when I am at the end of my career I can finally do what I want to do. No way, I cannot live like that and I am not going to. And my office is a great reflection of that because it used to be a very conventional professors office. I asked the university to take all the conventional furniture out and for a few weeks I was working on the floor. Then I moved part of the lab up here because I thought ‘why don’t I have a workbench?’ It was so hard to get away from the computer and administration to go all the way downstairs to the lab. I have this room so let’s make this my personal playground. I got rid off the huge desk and huge workspace and replaced it with a workbench and a lounge and this tiny desk. It’s so much better and it’s good for creativity. This is also why we fill the lab with scientists, engineers, artists, social scientists. It’s so important to have all these perspectives colliding and mixing. I think we come up with better questions.

Tell me about how you got started in science in the first place?
It was actually in art school. It was that fascination with the natural world. Science is just as creative as art. There is no difference. The distinction we make as society is arbitrary. That is why it’s so important for me to have artists in the lab and all sorts of people in the lab that you wouldn’t expect.

But, during the very first lecture on the very first day of my undergraduate career, a prof said something like ‘at the heart of any good chemist is someone who wants to make things burn and blow things up’ and I was like damn I didn’t realize it, but I am a chemist! That is what I have been getting into trouble for my entire childhood. And that’s play and failure all wrapped into one. That hooked me on the idea of being a researcher, being able to explore ideas and do things and the traditionally the mechanism to that path is getting hyper specialized and being a world-leading expert in something.

When I got my job here, when I became a Canada Research Chair, I felt like I had proven what I needed to prove as a scientist. I am a tenured professor, I have all these awards, international recognition, yes there is always a bigger award and better paper, and bigger grant, but I have played that game and it’s not interesting to me any more. I thought ‘how can I completely throw out everything I have done and disrupt it and do something completely crazy?’ that’s why my lab went in a different direction. I am not a pioneer in any sense though. I have just been exposed to people around the world who have made similar types of choices and I am building on their risks and their lessons. It’s great. It’s a community of people.

Let’s talk about craft
The conversations I am having with people behind pHacktory are a lot about craft and really traditional apprenticeship models. Science is very much craft. In the lab you have to practice and learn and use your hands instead of just pressing a button and waiting for the computer to do something. You have to get in there with pipettes and work with cells. There is a craftsmanship to that work.

My wife’s work as a musical instrument maker is the very traditional notion of craft. There is an interesting parallel in our work. The theme is the same, the medium is different. We have collaborated now and then. We made a violin that tweets which we showcased at the Ottawa mini Maker Faire a few years ago. I created the board, the code and web interfaces for a violin she created. Basically this thing played bird songs in response to your playing, and also sent tweets out on Twitter. It was a really annoying account because it would blast Twitter messages based on whatever bird was playing and links to a website – we picked endangered birds. More highly endangered birds were assigned to frequencies you would not hear as much.

At the time I was also thinking about how we could use social media interfaces to connect to our scientific instruments. This led to creating a microscope a little later that could be controlled through Twitter. It was the same code, the same process. It started with this goofy project but it actually turned into a device that was eventually collected by the Canada Science and Technology Museum because of its significance to the landscape of Canadian science. We could have never predicted that or created a business plan to come up with this thing: it came out of play. That’s just one example.


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