Don’t try this at home

The ethically challenging world of DIY science

By Martin Smith and Amanda Gregorio

There was a time when science was done by gentlemen amateurs in their parlours and out-buildings. Their equipment was often fashioned from scratch or constructed from re-purposed bits and bobs from the pantry. Safety wasn’t a priority — some lost digits, limbs or even their eyesight. But some of the most important moments in science happened in the candlelit rooms of celebrated dilettantes. Think of Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday or Nikola Tesla.

With the advent of cheaper and more accessible technology, as well as a treasure trove of freely available information on the Internet, a new generation of experimenters have emerged in recent years. Arguably, they are an inevitable byproduct of maker culture, the cultural phenomenon that is inspired by the do-it-yourself spirit of the digital revolution. One only needs to look at YouTube to see how far the boundaries are being pushed.

See Justin Atkins’ YouTube video above, posted to his account, The Thought Emporium.

The 9-minute YouTube video is not for the squeamish. Following a brief primer on the procedure, biohacker Justin Atkins snaps on surgical gloves and numbs a sterilized patch of skin. He then takes a large, 10-gauge piercing needle and begins burrowing into the arm of his friend.

Atkins is teaching others online how to insert transdermal implants. He’s also testing out a new bio-compatible coating that he hopes will reduce the risk of infection associated with transdermals.

Once the procedure is complete, he cleans the small titanium implant and covers it with a bandage.

“I don’t know who can believe somebody in their basement.” – Monique Frize

We expect this kind of procedure to happen in hospitals and research labs across the country. But Atkins isn’t a doctor or a trained professional. The lab in the video was built in his basement, and he uses chemicals mixed in his own home.

Atkins' Lab is operated out of his own home. [Photos courtesy of Justin Atkins]

Atkins’ Lab is operated out of his own home. [Photos courtesy of Justin Atkins]

“I mean Amazon just opened a whole science section, and it made it so much easier to find materials,” explains Atkins. “Like buying beakers was remarkably hard for a really long time. Now you can get it on Amazon for like 10 bucks, you can get 3 or 4 of them.”

In biohacker circles, or “grinders” as they call themselves, this kind of home surgery is commonplace. It’s part of a do-it-yourself movement that’s making science accessible to people untrained in the biological and medical fields.

Credible Science or Parlour Tricks?


Some grinders are just in it for the aesthetic, but people like Atkins hope to make serious contributions to science.

However, people like Monique Frize, a distinguished bioengineering professor at Carleton University, question the credibility of these basement scientists.

“How is anyone going to see that what he is doing is great?” she says. “When you get the training, when you get the credentials, then you are accepted within a certain research team. So without all of these things, I don’t know who can believe somebody in their basement.”

Not long after the video was posted, Atkins says the implant was removed from his friend. He’s calling the experiment a success.

“I was very impressed with the way the body reacted to it,” says Atkins. “Within a week, all of the swelling had gone down, and there was no evidence of any issues.”

He’s working on improvements, but he says it demonstrates his design is sound.

“Also keep in mind the danger of not finding solutions for the problems we have.” – Marc Saner

Frize is skeptical. Not only does she question his credibility, she says any kind of human experimentation is unethical.

“When (Justin) does something that is invasive, whether it is on himself or a friend, to me that is unethical,” says Frize. “If something happens to his friend, this guy is liable.”

Ethical Framework for Human Testing

Is there a compromise?


Veronica Postolski is doing her masters study in exploring the relationship between DIY science and institutionalized science. She thinks biohacking needs more public exposure before it will become acceptable.

“I can see DIY science being a legitimate force in society,” she says. “It just needs to get more traction and more coverage, so that people understand it better, versus being scared of it. They think maybe it’s mad scientists in laboratories in their basement doing crazy things with pathogens. We’ve become accustomed to this image from TV and movies. But that’s not what biohacking is.”


Veronica Postolski is a Masters student at Carleton University. She’s studying the relationship between DIY science and traditional institutionalized science.

She sees community labs, which are usually run by trained individuals who are familiar with the risks and how to prevent them, as a possible solution.

“I think they took good steps when they created community labs all over the world,” Postolski says. “The labs are usually free, although some ask for donations or membership fees…The biggest driver to get more people involved was having community labs that are regulated and government approved.”

The Canadian government is also aware of the possible safety risks of DIY science. At the same time, it’s not ignoring the enormous potential of the emerging movement.

On Wednesday in Ottawa, The Public Health Agency of Canada hosted a “DIY Biology Summit,” which is the first of its kind in Canada.

The main thrust of the event was to bring government together with open-science community leaders, academics and other groups to open a discussion about topics such as collaboration and safety.

The safety panel presentations at the summit focused on the policies and practices applicable to the operation of labs in homes and shared spaces, including the responsible handling of hazardous materials.

Panel expert Marc Saner, who is the former director of the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy, responded to the specific examples of invasive experimentation that Atkins and others are performing in their homes.

Saner said the remedy is to build a culture of safety.

“But if you cannot find the people and you can’t engage them, then I don’t think you can build a culture,” says Saner. He recommends that policy makers and community leaders work to get people such as Atkins more engaged, and that it should be “more of a pull than a push.”

He added that we must balance the risks with the potential of the movement to solve many problems facing the world. He says that environmental issues such as climate change require us to keep coming up with innovative scientific solutions.

“So let’s keep that in mind when you talk about the danger attached to garage biotech,” he says. “Also keep in mind the danger of not finding solutions for the problems we have.”


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