by Megan Sperry
Photo courtesy of TEDx.
Shree Bose is a rising senior at Harvard, winner of the 2011 Google Science Fair, and co-founder of Piper, a Minecraft toolbox for budding engineers that allows users to build electronics easily with real-time feedback in the game, with the goal of beating Minecraft. She is also one of Glamour's Top Ten College Women of 2015. After reading the short blurb about her work in Glamour magazine earlier this year, I wanted to learn more about her educational company, Piper, and what she hopes to do next...
Shree first started doing research in high school and her work led her to enter the Google Science Fair.
1. What first inspired you to enter scientific research? When you first started contacting universities to find a lab to work in, why type of response did you receive? Do you think more research labs should welcome high schoolers?
When my grandfather passed away of cancer, I remember the first thought in my mind actually being that I wanted to learn more about the disease itself, so I started reading journal articles, watching YouTube videos, and basically doing everything I could to actually give myself a little bit of background on what I wanted to start researching. When I started reaching out to professors, I honestly didn’t expect to get so consistently rejected, maybe because of my sheer blissful ignorance of the world academic research. Ultimately I think it’s always a calculated risk for professors who are contacted by high school students - between the level of commitment to the research and the lab weighed against the training and the level of independence high school students can bring. However, I think one of the most unique aspects these high school students can bring is innovative new thinking. Once you have been in a field for a number of years, it’s often quite easy to accept the way things are, and when you’re young, there’s the advantage of not knowing the ways things should be. So I think having high schools students who are dedicated and passionate to the work is a really beneficial experience for both lab members and for the students. It’s not always viable for all labs, but it’s definitely worthwhile for the right students.
Shree's research in high school (and her Google Science Fair Project) focused on understanding drug resistance in ovarian cancer. She found that one protein in the cell - AMP-kinase, changes function between sensitive cells and resistant cells.
2. Have you continued your research in chemotherapy resistance and ovarian cancer? What are you interested in now?
My scientific interests have taken some pretty crazy turns since I became involved in research as an undergraduate. In my first two years, I actually took some fascinating courses which taught some of the basic techniques of research in cellular and molecular biology, and I found that I wanted to really be on the cutting edge of working with innovative new methods, which led to my research last summer at Janelia Farm Research Campus (a Howard Hughes Medical Institute campus out in Ashburn, VA) working with neurobiology and motor control in mice. Currently, I’m working in a lab at Harvard Medical School under Dr. Gary Yellen, a really brilliant professor developing fluorescent biosensors that allow imaging of metabolic conditions in real time. This allows us to do really cool things like seeing how cells are processing energy when they are exposed to different fuels. Interestingly, one of the new sensors in the lab reads out the ATP:ADP ratio, which is what AMP kinase (the protein from my high school science fair project) does as well.
Piper is a Minecraft toolbox for building and inventing electronics. What is Minecraft? At its core, it's a game about placing and breaking blocks-- but has been expanded to include activities such as exploration, crafting, and combat. It is perfect for inventing because it is a sandbox independent video game. Read more about it here.
3. Where did the idea for Piper come from? How did you and co-founder, Mark, meet? The rest of your team?
So Piper actually grew out of a lot of the mentorship work that I had a chance to take part in after the Google Science Fair. As a young student who was getting to speak to other young students, I remember often being asked about how I got started with my work, which I generally answered with the advice to find a lab and get involved in hands on work. However, when students asked me about their interests in tech and wanting to get started with engineering and building electronics, I really didn’t have good resources to be able to recommend, and upon looking into it a bit more, I found that nothing really substantial existed - something that was both simple enough to pick up and start doing but also had the engagement that made you want to pick it up and start playing. So I actually met my cofounder, Mark, while we were both working at the NIH together, and as [Mark was] a graduate student who was heading off to Oxford to studying bioengineering, we shared a vision of what engineering education could be. Joel, an incredibly accomplished Stanford student who had studied at MIT, later joined on as a founder and has been a tremendous asset in creating Piper to what it is now, and we have had so much support and bits and pieces of the entire product and development done by incredible people who believe in our vision as well.
Piper and its components.
4. How did you decide what worked best inside the product Piper? (i.e. raspberry pi, circuit boards, etc.) Did you have many permutations of what Piper was? What was the brainstorming process like?
We had decided pretty early on that we actually wanted to use the Raspberry Pi as our central piece in Piper because the support community was huge and we really wanted to open up creating a lot of the content to the community as well. From there, a lot of the hardware was really decided from seeing what fit with the basic electronics concepts we were trying to teach and what fit well with the storyline we were creating as well. From the very beginning, we wanted something very open.
5. Who is your target audience? Do you envision schools purchasing it?
Right now, I think our main target is really 7-15 year olds (middle school age range). We’ve found that that is the perfect age where students are really into the game Minecraft and they are still very open to learning and building. Starting with Piper, we hope that these students go on to fall in love with engineering and with technology, and that they might be able to join more opportunities for robotics and engineering in high school and college. At the moment, we’ve had a few requests from schools, and we’ve actually done most of our testing in schools, which has allowed a different dynamic in the classroom as students really engage with the game and with each other. The teachers and students seem to love it, so we’re creating something that we hope everyone enjoys - even in classroom settings.
6. Piper is pretty expensive right now at $199-299. Do you see this price coming down after the first launch to make it more accessible for more kids?
The price is definitely something we’re trying to bring down, since we really want to get this product into the hands of kids all over the world and get them started creating and discovering. We’re really hoping that after these first shipments from our Kickstarter orders (for which the price is a little higher because of the need to set up suppliers and assembly lines), that will be able to drop the price and make Piper even more accessible. :) Stay tuned.
7. What adds-ons or future directions do you see for Piper? Do you see it as more than a single product? Do you see it as a brand?
I think Piper really grew out of a passion that Mark and I both had for creating tools to get kids excited in science, and we really want to see kids being able to share their creations in way they never have before. At the moment, what we are creating is really a storyline with challenges to teach some basic electronics engineering concepts, but we’re also planning to include a sandbox version where kids can use the tools they’ve learned to create their own levels and gadgets, and then share it with the world. From there, we hope to be able to have some type of monthly subscription where we can ship out new awesome cool projects. Ultimately, our gauge of success as a company is when we have kids creating things that we have never even thought of, and if Piper as a brand can help catalyze that type of innovation, we have succeeded.
8. What are your future plans and goals? Piper and beyond!
Ooh, that’s a tough question, especially considering that my current trajectory is nothing like what I thought it would be five years ago, so my future plans are always changing in new and exciting ways. :) At the moment, I’m applying to M.D.-Ph.D. programs which really strike the blend of being able to create and being able to implement medical technologies and research, so hopefully that will work out for me. We’ll see what happens!