Pizza, Jelly, and Experiment
Cindy Wu’s iGEM Journey From Fear of Public Speaking to Company CEO
Written and Interviewed by Amy Chen and Hassnain Qasim Bokhari
Cindy Wu is a co-founder of Experiment, a crowdfunding platform for scientific research. During undergrad Cindy was funded by Howard Hughes Medical Institute to work on cell-based immunotherapies. In 2011 she was on the University of Washington iGEM team where they won the World Championship. Cindy dropped out of her PhD to build Experiment, a Y Combinator backed startup. Experiment’s mission is to democratize the research process so that anyone can do science. Their mission has been profiled by leading publications including Science Magazine, Discover Magazine, The Economist, and Science Friday. Cindy was named on the Forbes' 30 under 30 list. Bill Gates recognized Experiment as “a solution to close the gap for potentially promising but unfunded projects." Cindy serves on the Board of Directors of the National Speleological Society.
Free pizza! Every university student’s weakness. An incentive that seems to instantaneously draw the attention of hungry college students everywhere. Pizza was how Cindy Wu first discovered the world of synthetic biology. Instead of walking away with free pizza, Cindy walked into a talk about reprogramming biology with an experience that changed the course of her career. It turned out that the professor giving the talk was encouraging the undergraduates to join a program called iGEM. At the time, Cindy had no idea what iGEM was, but she decided to attend the first meeting to find out more.
“I couldn’t tell you the difference between proteins and DNA”, Cindy expressed as she recounted her first UW iGEM meeting. “What were minipreps? What were oligos? How do I use a pipet?” were mind-boggling questions that she had at the beginning of the summer. However, as the project progressed over the next few months, her understanding of Synthetic Biology and her confidence in lab skills grew.
I met Cindy and saw her present at a recent event, so I was genuinely surprised when she told me that she is naturally very shy and introverted.
“I give talks quite often now but giving that iGEM presentation at MIT was mentally very challenging for me. I credit preparing for the iGEM talk as one of the moments where I got over my fear of public speaking.” said Cindy.
Despite her fear of public speaking, Cindy and her team won the Best Health or Medicine Award at the iGEM 2010 competition for their project that focused on redesigning a therapeutic for anthrax bacteria. With this initial exposure to iGEM, Cindy and her team won the iGEM World Championship Jamboree in 2011.
“This iGEM thing really made a difference for me and my friends”.
I was curious to know what lead Cindy to found Experiment, a crowdfunding site for scientific research. Upon asking it, her answer took me by surprise, “Jelly!” she replied in a jolly manner.
Jelly? I didn’t know how to interpret this answer. What was jelly? This answer was so unconventional that I was excited to hear more.
Cindy elaborated on this one-word answer. “Jelly is that the kind of wondrous feeling one has upon making a personal scientific discovery. And, I experienced jelly every day during iGEM.” There were many moments of jelly for Cindy during her iGEM experience. From successfully connecting a bunch of oligos to designing a working DNA part and engineering an enzyme treatment for anthrax, these moments all generated the feeling of “jelly” for Cindy. Cindy hopes that iGEMers can hold on to the “tiny moments in the lab where [they] feel that wondrous feeling, a moment of discovery.” To Cindy, passing on this feeling of “jelly” with others is extremely valuable. “Share stories of why this experience and your project is meaningful to you. When you tell stories about your own passion, your passion and enthusiasm become contagious.”
When asked about what advice she wants to pass on to iGEMers, Cindy responded, “Do not try to explain your project in the way you ‘think’ is the ‘right’ or ‘formal’ way to explain it. The communication often falls flat when humans try to follow some archaic ways of explaining their science for the sake of following a prescribed method. Write how you speak. Keep your communication concise. Ask your audience questions. Make your communication a discussion. Allow your backers the opportunity to feel like they belong. Give your backers a window to your world in the lab.”
Experiment’s mission is to democratize the research process, so anyone can do science. Cindy recognizes that achieving this as a community is going to take a long time and expects that this mission will extend beyond her time on the planet. Cindy believes that the biggest hurdle to making the system more efficient and accessible by keeping our scientific integrity high is- behavior change. She sees an inequity in the fact that the current incentives in the system reward career scientists who publish in high impact journals and earn large government grants. This barrier to research was something that Cindy had personally experienced.
After publishing their iGEM project in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, Cindy wanted to continue looking into the enzyme that she and her team engineered. Informed by new research studies, she wanted to test out the applicability of the enzyme designed for anthrax on Staphylococcus epidermidis. However, she needed funding to test this hypothesis. Sadly, when she asked her professor where she could find a small grant, he told her the system doesn't fund people like her. Cindy explained that the system is so conservative today that it only supports established ideas from professors with track records asking for more than $50,000. “That's when we decided to create an online marketplace where researchers could post research ideas and anyone anywhere with a credit card could be a patron of science.” says Cindy.
Set on this mission to build a scientific community that utilizes the internet to communicate discoveries efficiently, allow anyone online to access existing knowledge for free, and build a way to verify the accuracy of scientific outcomes in real-time, Cindy believes that we will end up producing more high-quality scientific content. “We will enable better science for more people,” says Cindy.
When asked about the role that she sees the iGEM community playing in this mission, Cindy stated, “The iGEM community is unique because the majority of our members are just starting out and the system does not currently judge us by our publications or grants. I encourage the iGEM community to question why the scientific community does things the way we do them. It is not a good enough reason to continue with processes because ‘this is the way things have always been done’.”
As an iGEM alumni, Cindy is excited to give back to the community and to help more iGEM teams generate innovative projects. Talking to Cindy about the various projects that Experiment has funded, I was happy to discover that iGEM teams have also successfully received funding for their project through Experiment. Over the past few years, 20 iGEM teams have been successfully funded on Experiment.com with an average project budget of $2663 raised for these projects. Experiment has not only helped fund teams in USA but has also had teams from Switzerland, Spain, Scotland, Netherlands, Nepal, India, and Italy. Experiment continues to support iGEM teams through the iGEM Research Challenge, an opportunity for teams to launch crowdfunding campaigns before the Giant Jamboree. The iGEM Research Challenge for 2019 is open and you can take a look at it on experiment.com/grants/iGEM2019.