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  • Writer's pictureDr A Bashir

40 The Royal We: Part III

Ramadan is just a few days away, which means it’s time for another installment of The Royal We, where I spotlight groundbreaking projects and the people behind them. Last season, I spoke with co-editors Dr Shaz Zamore and Amber Wendler about their upcoming book (Been Outside, now available for pre-order), which compiles the stories of Black women and non-binary scientists and nature enthusiasts from around the world. This year, I’m thrilled to share a spectacular conversation with BioJam team members Corinne Okada Takara, Callie Chappell, and Ana Maria Guerrero-Campos. BioJam is an interdisciplinary summer program through which 'artists, scientists, and educators collaborate with youth and communities of color to address historical exclusion of their communities in STEM fields and reframe what science can be.' During our chat, we dive into the past, present, and future of BioJam with Corinne and Callie as Ana shares her first-hand experience of the program through the eyes of a BioJam camper. To learn more about BioJam—beyond the interview below—check out the comprehensive summary that their team recently shared on arXiv.


Wishing you all a Ramadan Kareem, Nowruz Mobarak, and Happy Spring!


You'll find the audio version of The Royal We: Part III on our website, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Soundcloud, Spotify, and more.


The transcript of our conversation has been prepared for accessibility purposes, with minor edits for clarity and brevity.


Dr Callie Chappell: I think we have to recognize that we're people first. We come to our labs with our own perspectives from our lived experience, from our cultures, from our axes of identity, and when we can center and celebrate those elements of our lived experience and who we are in the fullness of our identities in the context of science I think we can re-imagine what science is and what science can be.


Her Royal Science jingle


Dr Asma Bashir: Hello world, and welcome to Her Royal Science. Thank you so much for joining us for today's episode. Today, we will be chatting with Corinne Okada Takara and Callie Chappell who lead an interdisciplinary summer camp in the Bay Area, BioJam. Through BioJam, Callie, Corinne, and their team creatively coalesce science and art to dive into bioengineering and environmental justice with high school students. Corinne is currently a Santa Clara University/Montalvo Arts Center Fellow, and Callie recently defended her doctoral thesis in Ecology and Evolution at Stanford. We’re also joined today by former BioJam camper turned teen-mentor Ana Maria Guerrero-Campos, an undergraduate student at Texas Christian University pursuing a BS in computer science and a BA in Spanish. I'm thrilled to be chatting with Corinne, Callie, and Ana about this amazing summer program, but let's start from the very beginning—what is the origin story of BioJam?


Corinne Okada Takara: I can take that question since I was at the beginning with Rolando Cruz Perez, who was, at the time, a PhD student at Stanford. It's an interesting origin story because we were actually in a shared Lyft ride in Philadelphia, going to a conference to talk about biotechnology in K-12. We started talking about how we didn't feel like there were really great entry points or conversation spaces to engage youth from communities that our families were from, so we started talking about 'what would a camp look like that we would design that elevated culture and community into the conversation of biology and empower students to drive those conversation?' Both of us come from agricultural communities—Rolando from Salinas Valley in California, and my family originating from an agricultural community in Maui, a sugarcane labor camp my father was born in. Rolando's family was really involved in a range of agricultural field work in Salinas Valley. We just started talking about how there's so much knowledge that's not recognized as science knowledge that we could bring to the front and kind of engage community in different ways. So that's how it started, then we prototyped out the first camp at Stanford in the Bioengineering Teaching Lab. Then Callie joined us in year two.


AB: Callie, how did you first hear about BioJam? I know you've been a student at Stanford for the last few years—is that how you discovered this program, this amazing interdisciplinary program?


CC: Well, I was really lucky because my friend Rolando sent me an email one day and was like, 'I've got this program that I'm co-organizing with an artist, Corinne, and I know you do art and science stuff. You wanna meet up with us at a coffee shop and learn more?' And I was like, 'Yes, of course I would like to learn more!' We met up at a coffee shop, and Corinne and Rolando were telling me about this program. I'm like, 'This is really amazing,' and they were like, 'I don't wanna just tell you about it. Let me show you! Can you get in my van? We're driving down to Salinas today and we're doing some programming.' I was like, 'Yeah, I guess I can cancel all of my meetings and drive to Salinas today!' And that's exactly what I did. I went down there and I saw this really amazing programming, literally programming a robot to pipette, not necessarily for PCR or things that scientists might imagine a pipetting robot to be used for, but actually to create art that centered the culture and the creativity of the teens that we were engaging with.


This collaboration—not just with the teens and with these artists and scientists, but also with this organization, Opentrons—was really engaging teens and kind of re-imagining what the intersection of science and art could be. And I was like, 'This is really amazing. How do I get involved?' The next year we were planning our camp for 2020, and little did we know that we would be doing that in the midst of a global pandemic, and that's when Ana got involved. So, we really pivoted all of the programming to be able to be remote. Corinne designed these amazing lab-on-cookie-sheet kits to be able to do all of our programming that we drove to every single camper's residence. We did everything on Zoom and everybody created all of these amazing designs that Corinne had created at home on Zoom. It was also combined with community engagement projects—that Corinne can share more about—that then took the work from our rooms or our cookie sheets back into community that centered the conversations that we were having about the intersection of science, art, and biodesign.


AB: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>. Community is a word that has come up a couple of times, and I'd love to explore a few more of the other tenets of BioJam. What is the foundation that BioJam stands upon?


COT: Oh, that's such a great question. Callie, Rolando, and I just finished wrapping up a paper for Cambridge Research Directions on what is needed in bioengineering education. Some of the tenets we talked about that we kind of organically formed throughout the camp include generative learning, so creating definitions for science terms together with the youth, creating examples from their lived experience rather than from textbook definitions. Playful making was a huge part of our journey with the youth; we wanted everything to be centered on play and creativity. When you play, there's no fear of doing wrong. Third one was reflection and ritual, so bringing our cultures into these spaces gives us an opportunity to look at what our rituals of gratitude with biology are. And then storytelling, which is really the key central tenet of what we do: how do we story-tell science and biology in new ways that bring to the fore ancestral knowledge and lived knowledge? Another component is frugal science tool designs. We really are interested in science journeys that can not only happen in whatever space that we're teaching in, but science journeys that students can take home, so what are the make-and-take activities that students can do and take home and amplify their science knowledge, learning, and teaching into their homes and communities? The last one would be just really bringing social awareness, critical thought, and activism to their lens and how they look at science. Those are the six areas that we really focused on. Callie, would you agree that really storytelling and play plays the biggest role in our frameworks for our explorations?


CC: Absolutely. Something that we really focus on is informal learning spaces. Oftentimes, folks have various experiences in formal classroom settings that may make people feel dissociated or not be as engaged in learning, so we wanna create a space that's playful, that's creative, that feels very, very different from classroom settings that people may have been in before to really open up space for re-imagining what science, what art, and what bio-making can be.


AB: Alright! And it's wonderful that we have Ana with us here today to tell us about her experiences as a student on the receiving end of this amazing summer experience. Ana, what were your thoughts as you took part in this summer program?


Ana Guerrero-Campos: I was really excited to join BioJam because I am part of the migrant program. It was during the time COVID hit and I remember Mr Morales told me about this opportunity and I was like, 'Oh yeah, this is awesome!' It gave me a chance to experience and experiment with different topics, different ideas, and I was never part of something so different. I didn't really have much knowledge about bioengineering and how you can incorporate art into bioengineering and biodesign. When Mr Morales told me about this opportunity, I was like, 'Yes, of course! I have nothing to do during COVID and this is an opportunity for me to expand my knowledge and just gain more experience about other topics and different fields.'


AB: How differently did you find science was presented to you within the classroom setting as a high school student versus how it was presented during BioJam?


AG-C: I think science in the classroom setting was more like, 'This is a fact. This is what has been taught or experimented with throughout time,' whereas BioJam was more about experimenting on your own and finding out using these facts and finding out about these facts through hands-on experience. I also loved the fact that they incorporated art into BioJam because in a classroom setting it was more like, 'this is STEM, the fine arts and the social sciences are another thing,' and they never incorporated art into science.


AB: Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. How much work do you think needs to be done now in the academic setting to reflect that? I'm thinking about my own experiences, how there's a rigidity in the science world that I'm not a huge fan of. Callie, you just had a [PhD] defense that I thought did a wonderful job of putting these multiple facets together, of saying, let's be playful with our science and let's learn about the world around us, but your defense was a rarity. I wish most of our defenses were like that! What do you think we need to do in the academic space to bring more of those tenets into this space, this already existing space?


CC: I think we have to recognize that we're people first. We come to our labs, we come to our communities—whether that be scientific communities or communities that we might not necessarily consider to be scientific communities, but I would argue are—with our own perspectives from our lived experience, from our cultures, from our axes of identity. When we can center and celebrate those elements of our lived experience and who we are and the fullness of our identities in the context of science, I think we can re-imagine what science is and what science can be.


COT: For science and academia to re-imagine and dream what it can be, it has to kind of burst that bubble that it's in and bring in peers that are community arts activists, like me, and community members, and really support community spaces outside the walls of academia, so not only think about driving learning from within the walls of their institutions, but academia needs to grow prototyping, percolating, idea-spaces in communities, hyper-local community settings that are trusted spaces where there can be this synergy and continual conversation. A big barrier is just get to a academic space, so what are the trusted spaces in communities? I think it's really important in order for academic spaces to think about, 'how do we re-imagine [science]?' is also to reimagine the setting and the collaborators and to create these physical spaces that are in communities and elevating those community partners to the same level. I think BioJam has really been doing a great job outreaching to community spaces and community organizations. For example, BioJam, last year, partnered with Migrant Ed, and Callie, you can speak more to that because you were there last year partnering with them.


CC: Yeah! Something that we've really tried to do is re-imagine the way in which power flows with respect to academic institutions. Oftentimes when we think about outreach—and when I say we, I mean folks who have a kind of disciplinary training that I do, people with PhDs in science—we imagine that we as scientists have some hallowed knowledge about science and that our job is to communicate that to other people. That really doesn't take into account the fact that everyone has hallowed knowledge, right? Everyone has expertise, everyone has visions and understandings of the world that we can learn from, and this is particularly present when academics think about communicating their science to 'the broader public,' so as Corinne was saying earlier, what BioJam tries to do is re-imagine the way in which power flows, centering knowledge that already exist in community, and amplifying that or celebrating that from a different lived experience or a different disciplinary perspective.


One way that we've tried to actualize that [is in] how BioJam is set up is structurally. As Corinne was alluding to, there are three key elements of how BioJam now is set up. So, getting back to our prior point about the history of BioJam, after running our summer camp in 2020 which the teens and everybody were really excited about, we were like, 'How do we continue to grow this? And how do we create structures that really epitomize the core tenets that Corinne explained, of what Bio Jam represents?' One of them was by creating three arms of BioJam. The teen camperscan return back as teen mentors and then stay on as teen advisory board members—so Ana is an example of an amazing teen who's done all three of those roles—and then community members. We have community members [and community educators] who are part of the community advisory board that actually guide the direction of camp. This includes the Migrant Ed program as well as about 30 other non-profits that are part of our broader community nexus in the regions that we work in. We have these advisory board meetings where they actually tell us what they desire, what they dream of. And the third piece tries to make that happen, which is a Stanford organization called BioJam CoLABS (Community Learning with Art, Biodesign, and Solidarity). BioJam CoLABS is meant to be the wind under the wings of what the teens and the community wants. Instead of being the leaders and the explainers and the knowledge holders, we're actually the knowledge appreciators <laugh> and the knowledge supporters. So, how do we use resources at institutions like Stanford, academic institutions, and use that to re-imagine how academia can be different, right? How can we take inspiration from teens? How can we take inspiration from communities and actually radically re-imagine the way in which we think about science?


AB: That's beautiful. I wanna go back to the first arm of what you shared, [focusing on] the youth that you all center in BioJam. I wanted to share a sentiment that Corinne shared with me in our intake form. You said so beautifully, 'Learning is multi-generational and multi-directional. My richest learning comes from collaboration in communion with elders and youth.' I think that's beautifully worded and I think it's a very true sentiment, but we typically stray away from that in the academic setting, which I find a little bit baffling. I guess my question here is, how can we kind of change the way academia looks at the youth and looks at the younger members of our population to see them as valuable members of this science ecosystem that we're all a part of?


COT: I think one way to look at youth as true peers is when we realize the experts of communities and the most trusted members of communities are the youth. They truly are centered as collaborators, and not just this false elevation of, 'oh, we're doing this 'together.'' No, you really are leveraging the knowledge that they hold, that we don't hold, not being from a particular space. So, I think that's one way institutions and youth programs can center the knowledge of the youth as truly central to the programming that they're developing, especially if they're centering youth as co-collaborators in developing content or questions to bring into their communities or to bubble up from the communities. And I think the key thing here is to really think about whoever asks the questions and whoever's doing the dreaming controls the conversation, so that shifts the power dynamic: can we have communities drive the questions, I think, is at the core of everything.


An example of driving the question, I would say, are some of the extension journeys that some of the teens in BioJam have participated in. Some have also been in the Biodesign Challenge, so re-imagining PPE. We did this in BioJam as well. 'What is the PPE that you would want in your community? What is a very different type of PPE you would have as an agricultural worker in the field? How would you redesign that from a place of knowledge and from direct interviews with the actual experts, the field laborer, who may be relatives? How might you re-imagine rituals of gratitude with radishes that you grow on an international space station?' Another project that some of the students have participated in [is] a NASA-sponsored project of growing radishes in soil that's simulated from Mars. And so, just driving the questions from a more cultural-centered space, I think, can really increase the interest and ownership of the questions.


AB: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>, Callie, did you want to add something there as well?


CC: Teens drive all the questions in BioJam, so they decide the theme of camps, they come back and help design elements of the curriculum, they lead elements of the curriculum themselves, and really it's generative within the community and within their peers, right? 'What are my peers interested in? What questions are pressing in our minds?' Part of that is the part of camp when teens design community engagement projects. So, the first half of camp is co-learning together about, for example, environmental justice, or we had a camp about PPE, we've had camps thinking about climate change, right? But the second part is the teens actually doing need-finding in their own communities and asking, 'What sorts of projects can we do to actually address issues or questions or concerns that we see locally?' One example of that that Ana was involved in was the year where we focused on PPE. They noticed that a lot of field workers did not have access to appropriate PPE, so they worked with non-profits. They actually worked with, for example, a San Francisco opera costume department to have thousands of face masks donated and, with their aunts and uncles and siblings and parents, bagged them all in individual bags and then organized—with local city government in Gonzalez—a PPE distribution site to make sure that people that they knew in their community were having access to the PPE that they desperately deserved and needed at that time.


AB: Yeah! My next question is about starting a program like BioJam around the world. If you were somewhere else—you're in Canada like I am right now, or you're in the UK and you're interested in having a program like this—what do you need to do to get started? What was the process for you all to get started and what would you encourage others keep in mind when they're doing something like this?


COT: I think this is a beautiful question and I'm exploring that right now here in Hawaii. So, how do you begin to start having conversations about biology, biodesign, genetic engineering, the whole scope of biosciences in a community space? I think you have to go slow and you want to start from places of interest. Here, a big interest is water issues and water safety. We have a lot of very critical issues going on right now with our water, and I also think it's great to start with activities that you can have keiki (‘children’ in Hawaiian) up to kūpunas (elders) working on. This weekend I did a DIY paper microscope project where people designed their own little microscopes from index cards and acrylic spheres, then we looked at limu, we looked at seaweed. So, just focusing on what's really local play space [and] ancestral knowledge. The elders could share more knowledge about limu (seaweed) and we all started with a story about 'What's your first memory or a favorite memory of limu?' It was really interesting to hear the stories that people had going around in the circle.


I think it's starting with simple tool design, biology, organisms of place, and something that people can take home with them. They were able to take home what they designed: it was their creation. There was no one right way to make it, so really introducing science in a way that there's no one right answer, I think is important. We had students helping each other at different tables. One of the researchers had brought foldscopes from his boat, so they had something that was a very scientific kit, but they also had something they designed from scratch. Their journey in making the foldscope would be more pleasurable because they kind of understand it and they've made a working microscope already. But it's a really good question! How do you build out these new spaces in other places? Obviously, it's in collaboration with youth, seeing what they're interested, and trying things out.


AB: Callie, do you have some words of wisdom to anyone who might want to start something like BioJam in their own community?


CC: I think speaking from the perspective of being an academic researcher, the two most important things to enter into these conversations is—and they're not even conversations, they're really relationships—is two tenets of any good relationship, which is humility and trust. We do not have the knowledge as academic scientists stand today to be able to do programs like this. We have to work in trusting collaborations with artists, with community activists, with youth, in order to create new communities and ecosystems like this. Just like if you want to have a good partnership with anybody or anything <chuckle>, you have to put the time and energy and care into cultivating real authentic relationships first, and only through cultivating those authentic relationships, through humility, through an openness to grow, through a genuine desire to learn, can you be able to grow trust. As Corinne has mentioned many times, it's an iterative process. It's one where you have to put yourself out there and make mistakes. Sometimes it's hard as scientists to be like, 'Oh, oops, I didn't mean to say that!' or 'I think I messed up,' or 'I don't know something.' And so, entering into these conversations with humility and being open to being wrong and celebrating epic fails sometimes as a pathway to growth is really crucial in being able to have a good relationship with anybody, but particularly in growing these really deep relationships and ecosystems that make this kind of work possible.


AB: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>. BioJam as it stands today is a beautiful program that's doing wonderful things. I now want to ask you about what you think the future of BioJam is as it continues to grow.


CC: I think our biggest hope for BioJam is that new generations make it their own. Corinne and I have been working together now for many years on BioJam and we've been part of this transition team to celebrate the knowledge, expertise, and new visions of a generation to come after us, so we want to be the wind under their wings and what they imagine BioJam is. For example, most of the time in which we were involved in BioJam, we were working at three different sites in the Greater Bay Area: in Oakland, East San Jose, and Salinas. In the past year, we've actually pivoted to be only in Salinas—in South Monterey County—through a really deep collaboration with the Monterey County Office of Education Migrant Ed program. With that collaboration, we actually have a different demographic of students—slightly younger students—that are all migrant students, so we're really excited to see how the next group of scientists starts collaborating and continues to collaborate with this new group of community educators and what vision they have for the future. Part of this iterative process of working with different youth, with working in different communities and through the process of learning and discovery there, that really opens up space for BioJam to always be part of this ongoing transformation.


BioJam really is a way of being <chuckle>, I think you can hear it when we talk about BioJam, right? It's a way of interacting and understanding the world that centers culture, creativity, and biology in the way that we exist in the world, so I think that is carried forth, and hopefully the way in which people think about their existence in the world [is changed] after being part of the BioJam community, whether that's being a camper, whether that's being a CoLAB-er, whether that's being on one of our advisory boards or just, you know, friends and family and loved ones, right?


One challenge specifically that we ran into with BioJam is resources, right? So much of what we were able to do was constrained by resources that the communities that we collaborate with have access to and the actual resources that we have to be able to do programming. For example, almost all of our programming comes from arts and ethics organizations, and pretty much no scientific research organizations, which is very interesting for a bioengineering camp. That got me thinking, how do we create structures that support this kind of work in a broad way, beyond just BioJam Camp, but how can we have funding pathways, for example, or institutional pathways that support this happening throughout the US and globally? And so, a lot of my next steps are focused on this from a policy perspective. What policies need to be in place in order to support continued work and activism like this?


AB: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>. Corinne, what do you see as the future of BioJam?


COT: I love Callie's description; I just want to add to that. I think of storytelling as a key component of what we do, but BioJam itself is a story, and each person retells it carrying along some of what was passed, but adding a new link to it, so it's an evolving story. I hope it's a story that keeps growing and keeps getting re-told through new voices that carry along some of our old perspectives, but really resonates as it's retold to the current participants. I hope it becomes a model for other programs. Really, my dream would be for there to be satellite programs very similar to it, or visiting groups that come and watch BioJam and then make something similar in their home community. We really do need these missing spaces. These are holes in our science education. We really have a hole in spaces where science is talked about with community and dreaming the future of biology [with folks] that are not in academia, especially in lower resource communities, where there's such a richness of different ways of storytelling with biology, of making with biology, collaborating with biology. I think that's my dream, for there to be more of these.


AB: Ana, what do you think your future looks like with respect to BioJam? Do you hope that you're a continuing member of the admin team or a continued mentor? Is there anything that you're hoping to continue to do in this space?


AG-C: Yes, I really hope to encourage more students to join BioJam. I think BioJam has really helped me grow as a person. It's just given me a different perspective about science and it's helped me gain a lot of knowledge, so I'm hoping I can encourage more students from my area and from my high school to learn about different stuff, and just join BioJam. I really appreciate all the help from Callie, Corinne, and all the other admin members of BioJam. They have been such a great support system.


AB: Oh, that's wonderful, and so, so beautiful. I wanna thank all of you for being a part of this conversation and I'll be sure to put your contact information not only in the transcript but within the show notes as well. Thank you so much!


CC: Thank you so much. And BioJam is fun! If anyone takes something away from this, they should know BioJam is fun. Hopefully you had fun doing the activities that we do with teens! <Laugh>


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