UpendED interview series: Ben Dubin-Thaler of BioBus
"The U.S. is in a bad way when it comes to science education. We’re ranked something like 17th in the world. In schools with over 50% minority enrollment, fewer than half of those schools have working science labs. The whole purpose that I had when I built the BioBus was to bring a hands-on science lab to students in low-income communities in order to inspire the next generation of scientists.”
Dr. Ben Dubin-Thaler is the 33-year-old founder of BioBus. Founded in 2007 after Dubin-Thaler completed his PhD in biophysics at Columbia University, BioBus now comprises four full-time employees and over 100 volunteers that oversee the daily operations of the New York-based non-profit organization. BioBus is also a founding member of the Mobile Laboratory Coalition, a consortium of scientists with traveling labs. In addition to this venture, Dubin-Thaler was also a member of the acting troupe “Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping” which appeared in "What Would Jesus Buy?"
Find out how Dubin-Thaler’s acting troupe led to the creation of BioBus and why the roving lab may not be quite as expensive as it looks. Follow @BioBus on Twitter.
I looked online and I saw that Georgia State University had the first incarnation of a BioBus. Were you inspired by theirs to create your own?
I was inspired by a program at the University of Illinois called the Physics Van. That’s a program that’s been going on since I was in high school. Back in ’95, I did an internship with professor Mats Selen who is still running that program at the University of Illinois. They would bring cool physics demos and blow things up for elementary and middle school kids. That was really my inspiration for starting the BioBus, which was basically a just a slightly larger version of that.
How did you start the project?
I started the project by talking to people in a group called S.P.A.Z. who are a really amazing, anarchist-inspired collective that work in the Bay Area of San Francisco. I had known them for many years because I was in a performance group that toured on one of their buses. They are actually mobile entrepreneurs of a different kind. They take old transit buses and convert them into touring buses for bands and circuses and theater groups.
When I first started plans for BioBus, I talked to my friends at S.P.A.Z. They helped me to find a bus that was suitable and connected me to an amazing community of self-described “bus nuts” who are a group of people that maintain these 1970s, and sometimes even older, vintage GMC buses. They also helped me to convert the bus to run on vegetable oil and start the initial conversion to a lab space.
How were you paying for all of this?
In the beginning, it was just the little savings I’d managed to scrape together when I was doing my PhD at Columbia, and also money that I banked from my family members and colleagues of mine, other scientists. It was very low budget to start out.
What would you say were the total startup costs for the initial version of the BioBus?
The bus itself I purchased for $15,000. It had already been converted to an RV, so it had electricity and running water which was a great because I didn’t have to do the really basic, basic conversions. Beyond that, it was basically just my living expenses and travel expenses. When you’re living in an anarchist community in San Francisco, your cost of living can be very, very low.
What about the lab build-out? It seems like that could be very detailed and very expensive as well.
I used a type of modular aluminum construction material called 80/20. For about $3,000 I purchased the basic materials for constructing the lab.
So you built the lab yourself, pretty much?
We built the lab ourselves. I hired a carpenter for a couple of days to build some seating areas, but that wasn’t a real huge expense. All of the wood that we used for the majority of the building materials was repurposed from construction waste that we were able to pull out of dumpsters. Again, the advantages of collaborating with a collective like S.P.A.Z. is that they know where all the waste in San Francisco is, all the stuff that most people would say, ‘Oh, you know, this is just extra trash.’
The BioBus is now a non-profit, correct?
BioBus is a 501(c)3 non-profit.
Why did you decide to go the non-profit route instead of making it a for-profit venture?
It definitely could have been a for-profit. But in order for it to be a for-profit, I would be in a lot of debt right now. I would have had to take out loans in order to get the equipment that was instead donated to us. We have close to $200,000 of donated lab equipment on the bus. Certainly those companies would not have donated to us had it not been for the fact that they were supporting a non-profit and they also were receiving tax deductions for their donation.
I recently interviewed the owner of Lulu’s Local Eatery, and she has a garden on her roof built by Bus Roots. I was looking on your website and noticed that your bus also has a roof garden built by Bus Roots. Can you tell me about it?
We were the first people with grass on our roof, I think. Marco Castro is the person that I worked with to put the garden on the rooftop.
Does that change the operating costs, having the garden up there?
What do you use it for?
The roof garden was put up to show that plants, like ideas, can grow anywhere.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with green roofs in general, but they reduce the temperature of the inside of a building. So they’re a way to cool without using fans or air conditioner and it’s also potentially a way to grow food. We actually have blackberries growing on our current green roof.
BioBus is the 501(c)3 non-profit registered under Cell Motion Laboratories. Do you have any other ventures under that banner?
The BioBus is the main project. Over 90% of the budget of Cell Motion Laboratories goes to BioBus. There’s a small amount of research that we do with Baylor College of Medicine that’s supported by contracts. We just got a grant from the U.S. Forest Service to help train forest service staff to help operate mobile labs. They’re starting the program in Jordan. We’re consulting with them to help prepare them for their new program. It’s some research and some consulting, but at the moment, our primary project is the BioBus.
Where does the BioBus go? Does it stay in-state or does it go all over the country?
Check out our website. It’ll show you every place we’ve ever been over the last four years. We’ve been all over the country.
Are you thinking about getting another bus at some point to go along with the one you have currently?
We don’t have any plans for another bus right now, although I think in the future we may work with other organizations to build BioBuses where there’s a need. Eventually, I would like to try to convince school districts that having mobile labs is an effective way for having cutting edge, hands-on research for their students.
I think that with the out-of-control spiraling of traditional academia, I think that there’s a real opportunity for BioBus to fill a need for adult education. We’ve done that in different situations. In the summertime, we do a lot of public events like the World Science Festival and Figment.