Diving into a DAO as a scientist: what does help look like?

Issue 177 | May 27, 2022
22 min read
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You may have heard people (especially on Twitter) talking about DeSci, or decentralized science. Today Jessica Sacher shares her experience diving into LabDAO, a new DeSci initiative enabling science through a lab space/experiment sharing network.

This is a cross-post from Jessica’s TechBio Adventures, a blog that explores the intersection between technology, startups and biology.

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Diving into a DAO as a scientist: what does help look like?

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Phage microbiologist and co-founder of Phage Directory
Co-founderPostdoctoral Researcher
Skills

Phage characterization, Phage-host interactions, Phage Therapy, Molecular Biology

I’m a co-founder of Phage Directory and have a Ph.D in Microbiology and Biotechnology from the University of Alberta (I studied Campylobacter phage biology). For Phage Directory, I oversee community building, phage sourcing, communications, science, and our awesome team of volunteers.

As of Feb 2022, I’ve recently joined Jon Iredell’s group in Sydney, Australia as a postdoctoral research scientist for the Phage Australia project. I’m diving back into the lab to help get Phage Australia’s country-wide phage therapy system up and running here, working to streamline workflows for phage sourcing, biobanking and collection of phage/bacteria/patient matching and monitoring data, and integrating it all with Phage Directory’s phage exchange, phage alerts and phage atlas systems.

This is a cross-post from Jessica’s TechBio Adventures (original post here), a blog that explores the intersection between technology, startups and biology.

Hello friends!

It’s been a couple months since my last post (since then, Jan and I have moved our life from Atlanta to Sydney, started launching a system for personalized phage therapy Australia-wide, and gotten/recovered from COVID (I guess everything in this country does want to kill you).

In that time, the DeSci movement has been taking off. It’s so clear that there’s a growing global community of us ready to leverage the Web3 movement to fix science. I’m glad that unlike me, the rest of you haven’t taken any time off working on this movement!

Through all of this I’ve been trying to stay involved in the DeSci space — for me that means helping out with LabDAO’s community working group. A lot of our discussions lately revolve around bringing more scientists into the movement. But when I talk to scientists, while they’re excited about fixing and accelerating science, they’re completely lost as to how to get involved / how they might be useful in this new mysterious DeSci context.

As a scientist myself who’s been feeling their way around DAOs, I’ve been wanting to share a window into my experience, in hopes it might help more scientists understand what joining a DAO or other DeSci project might look like.

DeSci: a movement of movements aimed at fixing science

Before we start, why bother getting involved in a DeSci project? For me, it’s clear that DeSci can improve the process (and success rate) of science, not to mention the lives of scientists.

Why? The way I see it, it’s a movement made of a bunch of micro-movements, most of them run as DAOs — decentralized autonomous organizations. (For simplicity, I currently think of DAOs as open ‘clubs’ on the internet whose members do work together. Or kind of like pseudo-companies where anyone can just show up, start working, and [eventually] be compensated, sometimes even through getting shares of ownership in the project.)

By some miraculous set of circumstances, the concept/playbook of DAOs is starting to be applied to the various problems across science and biotech. Every few weeks, a new DAO seems to emerge, each focusing on a different problem science has (Inaccessible cures! Slow progress! Lack of reproducibility! Silos! Undervalued scientists! No more biotech lab space!). The list goes on. And the people behind these movements are excited, driven, skilled, collaborative, and most importantly: they are getting to work, and anyone can join them.

For me, learning about these movements, watching them grow, and getting involved reminds me why I got into science in the first place, and makes me feel less bitter that I spent a decade training to be a scientist in a world that doesn’t value it. And I know I’m not alone.

desci landscape pic

Decentralized Science Landscape snapshot, created by the UltraRare Bio team, including Dani and Katie. (An updated version of this lives in the DeSci wiki, curated by Jocelynn Pearl)

Work with a DAO = Help tackle big problems without abandoning your science career

It’s one thing to hear about a new movement and get all inspired that things might change — it’s another thing to actually get involved. For one thing, what does getting involved look like? What kind of time commitment are we looking at? What’s expected? Am I really going to be able to help without setting off alarm bells with my PI, or letting all my research slide? If I join a movement like this, does it send bad signals to those evaluating my grants, papers, and scholarship applications? Is it worth it? And how can I even be helpful anyway?

Luckily, DAOs are well-suited to fit into our lives as scientists. You do not have to abandon your science career to be extremely helpful to a DAO! Imagine working on a baby startup, from the comfort of your current research position. No one in your science circles would really have to know. You get to do startup stuff, get involved in projects you believe in and can help with, work with creative, welcoming, ‘permission-optional’ people, and your involvement can be as bite-sized as you want it to be.

Besides the exciting feeling of doing the work and innovating on some of science/biotech’s stickiest challenges, you can look at DAOs as a way to sample what it’s like to work outside of academia (without, god forbid, Leaving Science / selling your soul / violating the unwritten loyalty contract you have with your PI/colleagues, etc). See what it’s like to work with different kinds of people (like tech people!), on different kinds of problems, in a team-based setting, with mission-driven, nimble people with very different skillsets than you. This alone is worth it (and will probably infuse new energy/perspective into how you do your science back home in the lab!).

Dipping my toes into LabDAO

Now, as promised, a window into what joining one of these science DAOs is like. TL;DR: it’s fun, easy, it will make you feel useful, and you should try it!

I stumbled upon LabDAO last November when Twitter served me up a blog post by Arye and Niklas, two of LabDAO’s founders:

What if scientists could do R&D as easily as a web developer could spin-up a new compute instance? What if we could enable someone on their laptop to develop a new biotech product without having access to a million dollar lab? — Arye and Niklas, Building a labDAO for web3 biotech

I was so excited to see blockchain/Web3/NFT enthusiasm crossing over with something science-related. Plus, LabDAO’s specific mission resonated so much for me. (I was spending too much time lamenting to Jan, my co-founder/partner/resident Tech Person about how coders have it easier than biologists, so I was instantly hooked).

Braving my way into LabDAO’s Discord

I had no real idea about how a DAO worked at that point. But most mentions of LabDAO led to Discord. ‘Join our Discord!’ everyone beckoned. I’d been running our phage researcher community on Slack, which is a very similar app. But still, I was intimidated when I got there. There were lots of channels, and lots of activity in each. People seemed friendly enough, but they were still strangers on the internet. It definitely wasn’t obvious what was happening there, or how I could even begin to help. Maybe if I read through ALL the channels, but who has the time?

Taking the bold step of joining a LabDAO zoom call

At some point over the Christmas break I decided to join one of LabDAO weekly zoom meetings, which I kept seeing invites for — this seemed less overwhelming than reading through all the channels. I remember almost opting out right when it was set to start. After all, no one would notice if I didn’t come… but people would definitely notice if I was there and had no idea what was going on. (‘I haven’t done the homework!’ anxiety dream vibes started kicking in…)

I joined anyway. I introduced myself along with the others. I said something like: I’m a microbiologist, cofounder of Phage Directory and manager of a community of phage researchers, and that I was there to learn and to help if I could.

To my surprise, throughout that meeting, at least three people matter-of-factly mentioned me by name in the context of something they thought I could help with. “We need a first user on LabDAO’s experiment marketplace — maybe someone in Jessica’s community.” Or, “let’s set a meeting with Jessica so we can get a sense of what a scientist might need from the platform we’re building”.

I was floored! I was potentially useful! This was very cool and made me feel like part of the community. Notably, I had not DONE anything helpful yet. And yet, I was already helpful just by being there and introducing myself and my background.

Accidentally becoming helpful to LabDAO

After that first LabDAO meeting, Lily, one of the contributors (who was trying to understand how scientists might use LabDAO’s experiment marketplace), messaged me to set up a call. I told her what I knew about what kinds of work phage researchers were doing, what was hard to come by (sequencing, electron microscopy), and generally just had a nice chat and felt like I made a new friend.

Later Lily typed in the Discord that from her call with me she’d come up with a thesis, that science communities are all so different, so instead of us trying to build a platform ‘for science’ we should build a platform that different science communities could build off of, setting up something that might look like a team of teams… each community with their own norms, but all supported by a common platform that would help them efficiently do their science.

People loved this idea, and they said so on Discord! I watched as this began to influence the subsequent conversations. I instantly felt like I had a place in the LabDAO community. I had simply brought myself to the table, and the community, knowing what it needed, had helped me be helpful.

From then on I started catching up on what LabDAO was all about… reading through the Discord, trying to follow all the progress that had already taken place since that Monday (I remember it feeling kind of wild how much had happened! Clearly the team was moving at a speed not common to me coming from academic microbiology research…).

Bringing in the next scientist

The next week I went to the Monday meeting again, this time feeling like it was more than OK that I was there! The talk that day centered around finding scientists with bioinformatic tools they would be interested in plugging into LabDAO’s system. We needed someone with domain expertise to liaise with the LabDAO tech team who would build it into the platform.

A few days later I happened to meet with someone (via Twitter, again) who had the skill set we’d just talked about needing! It was Sam Modlin, a San Diego scientist/bioinformatician who was curious about Web3/DeSci, AND who had experience outsourcing bioinformatics work to collaborators, and vice versa. He was excited to start diving into DAOs, but wasn’t sure if he could spare the time, and wasn’t sure what he might contribute. I told him all about my experience with LabDAO and explained what we needed him for.

A few hours later I checked the Discord, and to my delight, Sam was the most recent post in the #introductions channel! Not only that, I then saw his name all over the #sequencing channel talking specifics with the other members on how to make his bioinformatics pipeline integrate into LabDAO.

Success!!

So now I’m on a mission to bring more scientists like Sam into the fold. It’s the first way I’ve found to be helpful to this cause (but it won’t be the last!).

6 steps to diving into a DAO

Step 1: Pick a DAO and join their Discord!

I suggest starting with LabDAO, VitaDAO, or Opscientia — these have lots of traction and activity, and great missions. For a growing list of DeSci initiatives/DAOs, check out Jocelynn Pearl’s DeSci Wiki.

Step 2: Check for a ‘start here’ channel

Many DAOs have these nowadays. It will tell you exactly what to do. Otherwise, proceed below!

Step 3: Introduce yourself

Find the ‘introductions’ channel and write a quick blurb (1 or 2 sentences). Emphasize your background, what kind of science you’ve done, and what brought you there. Tell everyone you’re brand new to Web3 and you’ll be even more warmly welcomed! Don’t worry though, pretty much everyone is new to Web3. Then read other people’s intros and see all the cool people there and what they do. Maybe reply to a few!

Step 4: Meet at least one person for a 1-1 chat

Once you introduce yourself, people will probably reach out to you to say hi! If someone suggests meeting up for a chat, do it! It will be casual; a good time to introduce yourself, your background, what brought you to the DAO, ask questions about what they’re working on, and just see where the conversation goes.

(Shoutout to Niklas at LabDAO and Shady at Opscientia for jumping on zoom with me early on — these conversations made all the difference!).

Note: we’ve just started Intros.ai at LabDAO, so you can sign up to get matched 1-1 with someone in the community for a casual intro call!

Step 5: First week: spend 15 mins a day ‘lurking’

Spend the first week just allocating ~15 mins a day perusing through the various channels to see what’s going on. Don’t worry about commenting. Feel free to react solely in emojis (the native language of Discord).

Feel caught up? No? Correct, you will likely never feel caught up. But it’s okay, no one else is either. (It’s like the academic literature!)

Instead, see if you can find one small area/working group to hang out with, or pick one channel to keep up with. You don’t have to be up to date on the entire DAO to be helpful.

Step 6: BEFORE you feel ready, join a meeting

Worried you haven’t read enough to be useful in a meeting yet? Perfect, time to show up at one. You can usually find meeting links floating around the Discord channels. If you find one, consider it fair game to join. Just put it on your calendar and show up unannounced.

LabDAO has onboarding calls every week just for new people to say hi. Or you’re welcome to attend the project-focused meetings to see what’s happening. Some DAOs have shared calendars you can subscribe to: 📆 LabDAO’s is here.

They’ll all likely be small meetings, so expect to give a quick intro of yourself, but feel free to say you’re new and just want to listen and learn. You won’t be called on for any hard questions, and they won’t think it’s weird that you’re there. Every meeting it feels like there’s someone new just listening in. It’s expected!

(At LabDAO we’re also pioneering a new 🧬Lab Meeting series, where scientists will present their science and highlight their experiences with organizing cross-lab collaborations. This would be a great one to join, especially if you’re new to Web3!)

Welcome, fellow DAO member!

From there, you’re good! Until you find something you’d like to do, just keep going to the occasional weekly meeting and responding to people’s comments/questions.

My hypothesis is you will soon find an area where you can be helpful. Even if it’s very small. Like posting, ‘I used that sequencing method in my PhD, and yes we used to send those samples out to a company, or no we did them in-house’. People will be very happy for your contribution, and they will help you find ways to be helpful.

Can I put DAO work on my CV?

Ah, the academic CV. The deity that tells us academics whether we can justify doing something. I think this is part of a larger conversation about getting credit for work done, beyond the standard (woefully inadequate) options scientists currently have. New science-specific tools for doing this will undoubtedly start cropping up soon.

For now, go ahead and add your DAO involvement to your CV under leadership/extracurriculars. Or maybe let this work be something that transcends the academic CV.

How DAOs recognize contributions

For now, there are a bunch of creative ways DAOs recognize and compensate work done. Some use tokens (here’s a youtube explainer of how these work, from VitaDAO’s perspective). Others compensate with cryptocurrency or even normal money! As most DAOs are still early, many are still in a volunteer-driven stage. But still, contributions need to be recognized, and many groups are grappling with how best to do this.

Right now LabDAO uses Coordinape, which is a tool for giving your peers ‘points’ to recognize their work. Every month, contributors are prompted to dole out points to others in the DAO based on how much they feel those people have helped (plus optional memos/words of thanks — I find this such a fun ritual!).

For example, I gave out points to Tyler and Lily:
tyler points

lily points

And Boris gave me points!
boris points

Soon, the funding will come too

Since DAOs and science have only just met, most science-related DAOs are still early in their journeys, so I don’t think there are many examples yet of scientists getting paid to work for DAOs. As with any company, DAOs need to bring money in before they can pay it out. So, much like a startup, the money will come later with success, but where we’re at right now, at the beginning, these things are being built by the passionate and the curious. The more we build now, the better chance we have at making the whole thing financially sustainable and able to pay its contributors.

Luckily, as scientists, we are masters of doing things for the loooooong term (seriously, we are painfully good at this) so I think we can mostly get on board with doing the work now and letting the rest catch up.

Which science DAO will you dip your toe into first?

Science friends, I hope you feel empowered to join at least one DAO, introduce yourself, and let yourself fall down the rabbit hole a bit. At least long enough for the community to realize you’re there and start pointing to areas where they need you.

You don’t have to tell your PI. They won’t even notice…!

And if all else fails, you can do what I’m doing and focus on bringing more scientists into the fold! I think this is hugely needed — reach out if you want to brainstorm with me about what can be done here.

Happy DAOing!

Jessica

Thanks so much to my fellow LabDAO contributors Lily Hansen-Gillis and Boris Dyakov for reading and providing feedback and encouragement on this piece! And thanks to Jan Zheng for helping me think/talk through these ideas.

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