By Vinzente Fedele
On Tuesday, November 11, I decided to go looking for GenSpace, a public laboratory that people can use for their own research projects after becoming a member and paying an affordable, monthly fee. Since it opened in December of 2010, it has provided both young students and adults with hands-on scientific experience. GenSpace members are not required to be trained scientists, and there are classes there that are taught by experienced GenSpace members. Meanwhile, aspiring participants are not required to have any previous experience.
That day I took the #5 train to Nevins Street in Brooklyn, where I searched for the lab at 33 Flatbush. It was surprisingly hard to find, and ultimately I had to call Dr. Ellen Jorgensen, Director of GenSpace, who steered me to their location, which was actually just across the street from the train station exit where I started!
“There’s a big, red “33” over the door,” Jorgensen told me, “you can’t miss it,” and she was right. However, what I saw surrounding the big thirty-three was quite unexpected. Before arriving at GenSpace for my first time, I imagined they’d be housed in a large building like acollege or something similar, but I was surprised instead to find them in a small commercial structure nestled between others with titles like “Metropolitan Exchange Bank.” I crossed the street and walked to the glass-paneled doors to which was taped a small paper note announcing “GenSpace.”
While I phoned Dr.Jorgensen to gain access to the building, a man I assumed was part of GenSpace was entering, and he held the door for me. As if the building’s exterior wasn’t disorienting enough, I walked into a dark, narrow hallway with a faint light near an old fashioned kind of elevator with an outer door that you have to open by hand. I saw a whiteboard on the wall which said that GenSpace was on the second floor, so I started walking up the stairs before I heard the familiar voice of a woman ask: “Are you here for GenSpace?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Don’t go up the stairs,” said Dr.Jorgensen as I turned back to see her near the elevator. She was an older woman, wearing blue jeans and a black, “got science?” t-shirt over a red sweater.
At first she didn’t appear too interested in meeting me. She seemed confused about my reasons for wanting to meet her.
“What is your interest in GenSpace?” she asked.
I mentioned that I learned about GenSpace from a freelance reporter, Mike Weiss, who now makes videos about the scientists and the high school interns who work at a biomedical research lab called the Public Health Research Institute (PHRI), in Newark New Jersey. I’ve only met Mike Weiss through email, but he was helpful in giving me advice on where to look for a scientist who could mentor me.
“Didn’t he work for the Brooklyn Eagle?” Dr. Jorgensen inquired, remembering Weiss.
“Yeah, he used to,” I said.
As soon as we stepped off the elevator, I noticed white Christmas tree lights wrapped around some kind of vent near the ceiling. This place looked more like a cluttered studio apartment than a public laboratory. We sat at a slim granite table which was cut oddly around the edges, while I described MCSM’s Advanced Science Research program as well as a neuroscience project proposal that I and Vivienne Maxwell, a sophomore at MCSM, have been creating.
Unfortunately, neuroscience is not something that Dr. Jorgensen studies. She, like many of the GenSpace members, is interested in genetics. However, in an attempt to help me in some way for showing up at GenSpace, she gave me the email address of a scientist who works in Columbia University’s neuroscience department. So my visit did at least have one tangible pay-off.
After our discussion Dr. Jorgensen showed me around the lab which was divided into smaller sections. I saw some of the projects left behind by other people. Apparently, members are allowed to leave their materials and unfinished work, as long as the place isn’t left too cluttered.
I asked her if they’ll ever move GenSpace to a bigger location with more space. She confessed that they didn’t know where they might be in the future. Hearing those words and viewing the interior of GenSpace, I could feel the optimistic ambition which went into creating something like this. It seemed very inspiring, and that inspirational mood was one of the reasons why I enjoyed being there despite the very odd look and feel of this environment.
“Well, that’s about it,” she said after we completed our little tour. I stopped near the granite table to grab my coat. I thanked Jorgensen again for allowing me to visit and headed towards the elevator door.
I still couldn’t shake how weird this place seemed to me. Nevertheless, I found the oddness strangely appealing, and it made me think about returning in the future. I didn’t mention this to Ellen because I already felt that I had been a little too pushy in making her meet with me. However, I must admit that she and her quirky Brooklyn facility had made an impression.
The whole place exudes the kind of idealistic, “do-it-yourself” ambition that comes with daring to create something new and original. That is what makes GenSpace–although housed in this seemingly rundown building—something to admire.