HUBweek Change Maker: David S. Kong

Director, Community Biotechnology Initiative at the MIT Media Lab.

David Sun Kong is a Synthetic Biologist, community organizer, musician, and photographer. He is currently the Director of the MIT Media Lab’s new Community Biotechnology Initiative. David is a pioneer in developing “lab-on-a-chip” technologies for synthetic biology and a leader in the global community biology movement. He conducted his graduate studies at MIT’s Media Lab, receiving a Master’s degree for developing technology for printing nanostructures with energetic beams and a Ph.D. for demonstrating the first gene synthesis in a microfluidic (“lab-on-a-chip”) system. He has also worked as a community organizer for more than a decade and is the founder and director of EMW, an art, technology, and community space in Cambridge, MA. EMW’s mission is to empower communities through the transformative power of artistic expression.

But, wait… that’s not all.

David has also performed as a DJ, beat-boxer, vocalist, and rapper at hundreds of venues, including South by Southwest, the Staples Center in Los Angeles, and Brooklyn Bowl, where he opened for Tonight Show band-leader and hip hop legend Questlove. He is also an award-winning vocal arranger and producer. His photography has been exhibited at the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian, the Japanese American National Museum, and other museums and galleries across the country.

What does a day in your life as the Director of MIT Media Lab’s new Community Biotechnology Initiative look like? Every day is a little different! But usually during the day I’m meeting with students and collaborators working through our various projects, which can range from very technical efforts to artistic or community focused ones. One of my favorite projects right now is Biota Beats, a microbial record player we built that translates data about microbes of the body into music. It’s an example of work that intersects science (the human microbiome) and art (hip hop), which I find really exciting. During the late evening after dinner and spending time with family I focus on writing and other projects that require quiet reflection. It’s a peaceful time that I really treasure.

You are also the Founding Director of the EMW Bookstore in Central Square. How was your community born? In the late 90’s my parents opened a Chinese language bookstore, “East Meets West,” as a space for scholarship and community primarily for their generation of Chinese immigrants. Being a minority in the U.S. isn’t an easy experience, so spaces that foster community are so important. Around 2004, I and a number of other local activists and artists took over the storefront and started selling independent art from a remarkable network of Asian American creatives. In 2005 we started hosting our open mic series, “East Meets Words,” which will be celebrating its 13th anniversary this March! Over the past 5 years or so EMW has evolved into an art, technology, and community space with programs including our community library and gallery, alongside explorations of poetry, music, and even biotechnology, all with a focus on empowering marginalized communities. It’s been quite a journey!

What impact do you hope to have, personally or collectively, on our future? First, to help make the world a more just, compassionate, and loving place. Second, to help realize a world where everyone can reach their creative potential.

What is one thing people might find surprising about you or what you do? My main fun fact is that I’m a direct descendent of Confucius, 75th generation. Other little known fact: I was part of the MIT blackjack club.

Best and worst piece of advice you’ve received? Some recent great advice from my colleague Ed Boyden: “work backwards from your goal.” I’m not sure about recent worst advice, but it probably involves me eating too much sugar.

What’s next for you? Right now my main project is organizing the Global Community Bio Summit ( at the Media Lab this fall. We are bringing together the grassroots movement of independent and community biology laboratories from every corner of the world. I love family reunions, and this will be an epic one!

Meet and interact with Kong and dozens of other Change Makers during the first Change Maker Conference on Oct. 8–9. Learn more and register now.

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The HUBweek Change Maker series showcases the most innovative minds in art, science, and technology making an impact in Boston and around the world.