Interview with Cindy Wu

Cindy Wu is the co-founder of the rapidly growing website Experiment. A biologist by study, and an entrepreneur by trade, Wu can now claim to have produced one of the finest new developments toward the democratization of science.

Originally titled Microryza, Experiment is an online platform for discovering, funding, and sharing scientific research. Wu was inspired to create the website after struggling to secure even modest financing for research in combatting staph bacteria. “You can’t,” her professor explained, “because you are 22 years old and you don’t have a Ph.D. and you don’t want more than $25,000.” A silly reason for stalling potentially significant research, one would think.

Wu and co-founder Denny Luan wanted to close this funding gap. Apparently, so too did a large part of the scientific community. “Every single person said, ‘Yes—if you built this, I would use it,’” Wu stated.

Investing their own modest savings, Wu and Luan thus embarked on a quest to realize this goal. Having been turned down by many investors, they were eventually accepted into the Bay Area-based seed accelerator Y Combinator following a mere 10-minute interview. At Y Cominator’s “Demo Day,” just three months later, Wu’s three-minute pitch to investors raised a whopping $1.2 million.

Experiment is now the largest online platform for crowdfunding scientific research. As of this writing, the website has successfully raised nearly $8 million for 788 various scientific projects. It has even been praised by the renowned philanthropist and entrepreneur Bill Gates, who said of Experiment, “This solution helps close the gap for potential and promising, but unfunded projects.”

I reached out to Wu to discuss Experiment, popular misconceptions of science, useful reading, and those special moments of “jelly” in scientific discovery. Between spelunking and crawling through the casts of trees that were submerged in lava, she graciously took the time to respond to my questions.


You’ve spoken, quite poetically I might add, about what you at Experiment call “jelly” moments—the kind of wondrous feeling one has upon making a personal scientific discovery. My question is: What was it that initially attracted you to a career in science? What have been your jelly moments?

It learned about this thing called “science” long before I knew it had the official name, “science.” When I was a kindergartener I spent every recess period looking for insects: caterpillars, stink bugs, daddy long legs, whatever I could get my hands on. At the time my dream was to grow up and spend all my time catching bugs. Later I learned that professional title is entomologist. I spent a lot of my younger years playing video games. One game that I spent too many hours playing is Pokemon Blue. I loved the idea of collecting all the species in the virtual world.

I finally became “attracted” to science when I started my undergrad at the University of Washington. I didn’t want to work at Starbucks anymore, so I got a job in a zebrafish lab culturing sea monkeys and feeding them to the zebrafish. That led to my applying to a undergraduate grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute designed for students with little to no research experience. The grant gave me to the financial freedom to explore any area of research. It is during the year that I started to design dendritic cell vaccines that I knew I wanted to stick with science.

I live for jelly. Just yesterday I crawled through a tree cast in a lava tube on Mount Saint Helens. When hot lava submerges a whole tree, sometimes you get this tree cast which is this empty tube of where the tree trunk used to be. And yes, you can climb through them. You also get these cool tree rings. Caving is a great way to get a dose of jelly regularly. I recommend joining the National Speleological Society if you’re interested in this thing. You can email me at cruisercaver@gmail.com and I can get you set up.

There are many misconceptions about scientists and their work in popular culture, ranging from small inaccuracies to sometimes ludicrous gaffs. What would you like the public to know, or perhaps to be corrected about, regarding your work and the work of fellow scientists?

My dream is for the public to be very critical about what they read in the news. As mass consumers of content, the public has more power than I think the average citizen realizes. When you read a new scientific discovery in the news, check for the original source. Encourage journalists to link to the original peer-reviewed source. If it is not linked, write the editor.

There is a misconception that scientists live in an ivory tower secluded from the rest of the world. While there are a few scientists that fit this mold, most of us don’t. Most scientists are humans just like the average citizen. You can ask us questions on twitter or through email. You may not always get a response, but many of us scientists are more than willing to point you in the right direction to the right person or to the relevant publications. It helps if you send us a specific question.

What books would you consider essential reading for anyone who wanted to learn more about your field or perhaps simply to have a better understanding of the world in which they live?

This is tough for me to answer. I didn’t start reading books until last year. So, I guess you don’t have to read books to become a scientist?

I generally find that stories from other founders or scientists are most valuable to me. Here is some literature that I have read and would read again. I split them into startups, science, and business:

Startups:
Paul Graham Essays
Founders at Work – Jessica Livingston
The Hard Thing About Hard Things – Ben Horowitz

Science:
The Double Helix – James Watson
Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! – Richard Feynman
Experiment Eleven: Dark Secrets Behind the Discovery of a Wonder Drug – Peter Pringle

Business:
Shoe Dog – Phil Knight
Sam Walton: Made in America – Sam Walton
Personal History – Katharine Graham
Starting Point, 1979-1996 – Hayao Miyazaki
The HP Way: How Bill Hewlett and I Built Our Company – David Packard
Creativity Inc. – Ed Catmull
How To Be Rich – Paul Getty
Rhetoric – Aristotle

I keep my reading list publicly here.

The astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson had once expressed his desire to return to the lab, now that so much of his life has been devoted to being an author and science communicator. Do you have any similar desire to return to the field, now that so much of your time has been occupied running Experiment?

As much as I love building product and supporting the Experiment community, my dream scenario is to have unlimited resources and time to do science. More than doing science I would like to spend the majority of my time exploring the planet. I am particularly interested in the caves of our planet, or every underneath the earth’s crust.

Experiment is now responsible for funding over 700 scientific projects. Which of these have you found the most interesting or are especially proud of having helped bring to fruition?

Our mission is to democratize the research process so anyone can do science. I am most proud of being the first money for new scientists. I empathize most with un-established scientists with no publication track record because that is what I was when we started Experiment. I am so happy when scientists write in saying they published their first paper or finished their dissertation. I would like the government science funding agencies to pay more attention to these small projects. I think the large funding agencies can do more to support the earliest part of the pipeline.

What are some Experiment projects currently seeking funding that you’re particularly excited about?

If we provide reusable pads to school girls in rural Sierra Leone, we will see a significant increase in school attendance and participation.

I love this project because it combines the scientific method with empowering young women in Sierra Leone to stay in school. Children are the adults of tomorrow and it is important for adults to provide them the opportunity to keep learning.

Experiment has really taken off these past few years. What’s next for the website and what goals do you hope to achieve with it in the future?

Our mission is to democratize the research process, so anyone can do science. Achieving this as a community is going to take a long time. I expect our mission to extend beyond my time on the planet.

(Photo credit: Jackson Solway)

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