On the morning of October 4, 2014 I made my way to the GitHub headquarters in San Francisco for the start of Science Hack Day, and I was already nervous. Along with eight other scientists, I’d been invited as a ‘Science Ambassador’ to participate in a 24 hour challenge to discover or create something new with science. Knowing only a little about Science Hack Day before the invite, I did a bit of research. Turns out Science Hack Day began almost as a whim in 2010. Meant to be both entertaining and educational, Jeremy Keith created the first hack day in London. The free event was a way to get folks from all different backgrounds to not only talk about science, but to actually do it. The idea took off, and within months the second hack day took place in San Francisco. By the following year three countries and five ‘hackathons’ were added to the lists. And now it was time for San Francisco’s fifth Science Hack Day, featuring one totally lost jelly biologist.

As I wandered the streets of San Francisco with my phone plastered to my face, I grew more and more worried. Yes, I’m a scientist, but how on Earth was I supposed to get anything done from conception to completion in 24 hours? Most of my research literally takes years to finish. Finally I stumbled across a coordinator standing on a street corner in a white lab coat, and found my way inside.

A large bronze statue of GitHub’s mascot Octocat, a cartoon cat-octopus hybrid, sat at the entryway to the venue. The facility was expansive, state-of-the-art, with towering ceilings and an open floor plan, complete with snack table, stage, couches, beanbag chairs, loft, and a full bar. It hummed with 100+ ‘science hackers’. Nerd shirts and colored hair everywhere.

I gave my talk on biology and jellyfish in a small cove of the complex. I also suggested one specific idea. For years biologists have been using colors to visualize the similar molecules, or amino acids, that make up proteins. This makes it easy to see differences in the same kind protein from multiple species–line up the sequences and look for places where the colors differ. This helps biologists understand protein evolution and function. But instead of color, what if we could put musical notes to the genetic code? What would these differences between species sound like? After my talk I settled into a big leather couch, found the nearest outlet (less than two feet away, no surprise), and started hacking. Our group formed slowly–first a sound artist introduced himself and asked what protein data files looked like, then a fellow biologist stepped in to write some code to convert genetic data into something readable for a music program. A programmer joined in and by mid-afternoon we were a team, some scientists by profession, some programmers, some artists, and we were discovering something new.

After an impressive Indian food dinner we settled in for the long night, and right as my brain began to fry, the lights went out. An electric violinist started playing, and an explosion of color lit the stage. The violinist, I learned, had a condition called synesthesia–a cross wiring in the brain where she perceived sounds as color. Her husband made the light show to match the sounds she played with the colors she saw. It was breathtaking. After the show things began to wind down. Some went home, some slept at the headquarters, but many hacked the whole night through.

A custom-order omelet bar kicked off the morning, and it was back to more problem solving, multitasking, and playing with code. Over thirty groups had formed and everyone was nose-to-the-grindstone trying to wrap up. By late morning the group I was in made several big breakthroughs. An artist and sound engineer had figured out how to listen to the same gene from four species, all at once. We heard, for the first time what our selected protein sounded like–a metabolic protein wisely chosen by fellow biologist for its high similarity between species. And not only that, we heard it for four different species at once: a dog, monkey, human and whale. And with the clock stopping at 1 PM, we’d made it just in time. The crowd gathered and the couches filled with weary happy hackers. It was time for the ultimate show and tell: what could 24 hours of science hacking do?

There were dozens of presentations, but some of my top pics include: a modern dance that uses dancers to calculate different mathematical values with ancient algorithms; a program that determines the size of the asteroid you’d need to hold all your Twitter friends; a Super Nintendo Mario game for the blind; and the public favorite: a dancing dinosaur powered by an XBox Kinect and arduinos. But for every project completed, there were other projects at various stages of progress and prototyping–from a crab trap with lights on the line to help prevent whales from entanglement, to a mock-up ground water detector complete with a box of dirt and live wires.

In the end, Science Hack Day was little of what I expected, and a lot of what I needed. It wasn’t intense high-powered science making, but it wasn’t a pushover party either. It was a very serious event about having fun with science. And it was inspiring. This isn’t to say there weren’t problems: the air conditioner broke on the second day, and not everyone found a group they fit with. But for me, it was a reminder to loosen up, not worry so much about what can get done and when, and do science just for the sake of doing it. Sometimes nothing comes out of it, and sometimes that’s enough. And every once in a while, you might be surprised by something more:

audio file: protein_sound

caption: This ‘song’ is made up of four different protein sequences. These sequences are all from the same type of protein, called mTOR, but from different species–a dog, monkey, human and orca whale. All sequences are lined up so they all start at the same place in the protein. Visually, it looks something like this:

Screen Shot 2014-11-09 at 11.34.09 PM

In the song each note represent a different amino acid. When only one note is playing at a time, this means that this kind of amino acid is present in all four species, or in other words, it is ‘conserved’. When there is an echo and multiple notes playing at once, this means in one or more species the amino acids are different.

Rebecca Helm is a graduate student in Casey Dunn’s lab at Brown University, where she studies the evolution of life cycles. Humans have simple life cycles, but many animals (such as butterflies and jellies) live complex lives, with juveniles that look strikingly different from adults (e.g. caterpillars and butterflies). Rebecca wants to know how these different life cycles evolve, and study life cycle evolution in stinging nettle jellyfish.