David Kong

Making STEM fields inclusive is about maximizing human creativity and building a better world.

Director of MIT Media Lab’s Community Biotechnology Initiative

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David Kong | Director of MIT Media Lab’s Community Biotechnology Initiative
Lavin Exclusive Speaker

At the MIT Media Lab, David Kong is a passionate, brilliant exponent of biotechnology: the next major scientific innovation to transform life as we know it. But to start the revolution—and for human creativity to flourish—we need STEM to be inclusive: fusing tech with art, granting all people access to advanced science, and re-visioning what labs, classrooms, and companies look like. 

As Director of MIT Media Lab’s new Community Biotechnology Initiative, David Kong empowers diverse communities through biotech (and just as a refresher: “biotechnology” is the process by which living systems—DNA, tissue, plants—are adapted for new and useful technologies). And this means asking broad, vital questions. How do we design a future in which biotech, and science in general, is accessible to everyone? How do we demolish artificial divisions between culture and engineering, science and art? And how can we involve underrepresented people in cutting-edge STEM fields?


Biotech is arguably the major science of the 21st century. But to expedite its arrival, Kong argues, we need new models of knowledge production—diverse, distributed groups doing vital work away from traditional labs—much like the homebrew computing groups that gave way to Apple. It’s all about getting communities engaged now, while the tech is still being shaped. But that also means the movement hinges on accessibility: of tools, spaces, and infrastructure. So Kong champions grassroots labs away from college, federal, and corporate structures, designed specifically to be available, and appealing, to people who might never encounter biotechnology. He’s the co-founder and managing faculty of “How to Grow (Almost) Anything,” an MIT course on synthetic biology (read: a means of applying engineering frameworks to living systems to make them easier to design) that reaches labs in places like Switzerland, Latin America, and Japan, yet still demonstrates how to perform fruitful genomic experiments.


It’s also why he works to ‘culture hack’ biotech’s limited public perception, and connect the discipline with diverse cultural languages—like hip-hop. His ‘Biota Beats’ project uses a microbial record player to translate microbes from the human body into music (he’s even sampled DJ Jazzy Jeff’s unique makeup). As a DJ, beat-boxer, vocalist, and rapper, he’s performed at South by Southwest, the Staples Center in Los Angeles, and Brooklyn Bowl, opening for hip-hop legend Questlove. He is also an an award-winning vocal arranger and producer, so naturally, Kong was the official DJ of the Global Summit on Community Biotechnology, where he performed a composition called “Uni-Verse,” designed from bacteria sampled from 3,000 students (a vision of the shared global community, via microbes!). 


Outside the lab, he’s worked as a community organizer for more than a decade. As the founder of EMW—an art, technology, and community space in Cambridge, MA—he champions the transformative power of artistic expression and arts-based programming with values rooted in social justice. Serving marginalized communities—from LGBTQ to Asian-, African-, and Muslim-American—he explores and uplifts through forms like poetry, electronic music, beatboxing, and (yes!) bio-hacking, involving community labs and dissolved silos between science and art. But while he was founding this group he was also working with the Department of Homeland Security and FBI as part of MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory—moving from DARPA projects during the day to social justice organizing with Black Lives Matter at night. While he collaborates with Harvard Business School and MIT Sloan, he’s also an artist—his photography has been exhibited at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.—and his exhibit, I Want the Wide American Earth: An Asian Pacific American Story, can be seen at the National Museum of American History.


Kong has sterling institutional chops. He’s on the forefront of biotech, microfluidics, and “lab on a chip” technologies, which miniaturize large-scale processes into tiny, user-friendly interfaces. He’s forged artificial guts, created 3D-printed DNA assemblers, and worked to destroy cancer cells through miRNA-based genetic circuits. He’s a LEAP fellow and has served as guest faculty at the Marine Biology Lab in Woods Hole, MA. He was a founder of the synthetic biology team at MIT, and a founder of Metafluidics, an open repository for fluidic systems. And he earned his M.S. for developing technology for printing nanostructures with energetic beams, and his Ph.D. for demonstrating the first gene synthesis in a microfluidic system (both from the MIT Media Lab).


Speech Topics

The Future of Biotech Building the Next Technology of the 21st Century
Biotech: in terms of its sweeping potential, it’s poised to be the next digital. And to David Kong, today marks an incredible opportunity—for scientists, investors, colleges, CEOs, everyone—to shape the field while it’s still being formed. Decades ago, industrious people worked independently (often in literal basements and garages!) to take computing from room-sized hardware to the smartphone. We can witness an equivalent revolution, Kong argues, with biotech. All we need now, he says, is to make it accessible.
In this talk, Kong champions biotech’s technical promise: how the proliferation of accessible, affordable, life-enhancing science will have unimaginable consequences for business, economics, culture, and more. New molecule construction! Synthetic organs and designer enzymes! Microfluidic, “lab-on-a-chip” technologies—even newly discovered acids that can save lives. But, as an ambassador for the global community biology movement, he discusses how accessibility is key to furthering the field. He explains how accessible tools, spaces, and infrastructures can enable distributed educational models, offering unique access to lab equipment and personal help far from traditional centers of power. He shows how empowering diverse communities will mean new modes of knowledge production—the ideas necessary to kickstart biotech’s next revolution. And he discusses how transforming—culture-hacking—how the public imagines the field’s potential can correct a massive education gap.
Biotechnology is experiencing a crucial moment. The lessons we learn here are not only historical, but able to be extracted and mapped onto any corporate or technological model. Hear from one of the very brightest, most innovative minds in the field and embrace what could—what will—be the next science to improve our lives.
Diversity & Race
Diversity in STEM Embracing the Full Range of Human Creativity
Biotechnology is a life-changing, world-changing discipline that has the potential to affect everyone on Earth. So why is research around the field restricted to elites—to corporate and university labs, populated by those with power, money, and advanced degrees? In this keynote, David Kong argues for a broader, more diverse participation in biotech (and in STEM fields, more generally). And not just because it’s the right thing, but because innovation—real innovation—happens when people farthest from the discipline inject fresh ideas, ientive ways to think around corners, and out-of-the-box approaches to inquiry. When a discipline embraces the full range and diversity of human creativity. Kong has witnessed this first-hand: aside from his work at MIT, he runs a thriving art-and-tech community space called EMW. It’s built to champion cultural, artistic, and socioeconomic diversity, and offers a space to MCs, DJs, poets, activists, and local organizers. But it’s also a place for “bio-hacking,” as he calls it—involving workshops, community labs, bio art, youth programming, and more—that brings the complex world of synthetic biology to youth, people of color, and LGBTQ+ communities. As a DJ and innovator of the Biota Beats project (translating microbial data into music!), Kong is also working to cross the specialized language of synthetic biology over into other cultural languages—specifically hip hop. It’s all to widen the aperture of science, accelerate biotech’s limitless potential, and create a world where everyone, no matter their background or situation, can participate in making the world a better, smarter place.