This week we invited Amanda Preske of Circuit Breaker Labs and Because Science to join our livestream! Carrie and Amanda got to talking about Amanda's experience getting a PhD while running Circuit Breaker Labs, turning a webstore into a retail front and the different challenges faced, her PCB upcycle program, and the process of making custom pieces for people.
You can find her on Twitter @CBLAmanda and on Instagram @becausescience_dc
Check out her website and newsletter!
(0:00 – 5:52) How Amanda got Started with Science & Her Business
Carrie: Hello everyone! It is Wednesday, another solder sesh, and I am super excited because Amanda Preske is here. She is of both Circuit Breaker Labs and Because Science and I'm excited to have her here. She does amazing artwork with recycled PCBs. [You can see some examples of this right here.] She does some really cool, framed wall art with scrap PCBs and she's also open to retail store in DC called Because Science. Welcome to the show.
Amanda: Thank you so much.
Carrie: So, I would love to hear how did it all start? How did you get into science first? I guess that's a good place to start.
Amanda: Growing up I loved art and science. I filled my course schedule with as much of both as I possibly could. Of course, there wasn't even enough room to do everything I wanted to do. When it came time to go to college, art school was low on the list in the family, so, I became a chemist instead. Chemistry was one of the sciences that at least when I was 17, I thought I really liked, and I definitely do. It was the right science for me. It's a very hands-on, maker-centric science. It's about as Make-y as you can get.
Carrie: Very fundamentally Make-y.
Amanda: Yeah, you can’t really see what you're making, but sometimes you can, Sidebar here – I used to be really good at using a transmission electron microscope in order to image my stuff because it was too small to use the light microscope; so, I could see what I was making just not directly with my own eyes. But I have been making stuff since I was a teenager and selling it on the side and it wasn't until undergrad that I started getting a little bit more science-y with what I was making.
Amanda: That's when I started to find broken lab equipment sitting around our labs and I thought, “I wonder what's inside. What does this look like?” That's the curiosity in me and how I discovered that I really, really liked the way circuit boards looked. I started just seeing what I could do with them and because I was also doing craft shows at the same time and Etsy was just getting started around that time as well. I had a lot of feedback and people liked it. I think I was kind of shocked because up to that point I'd been making other jewelry, beaded stuff, resin stuff. It was okay, but when I started putting that out, people are like, okay, this is neat. So, I was very compelled to keep seeing where that would lead. I ended up going to grad school for chemistry because I was getting my bachelor's right around the recession, and I didn't think I was going to be able to get a job. I didn't go to college thinking I'd get a PhD. I didn't even know what it was or why you would even want one. It wasn't part of my plan.
Amanda: STEM fields usually end up being paid gigs. So, I thought, what's the harm of getting an education and getting paid to do research at the same time. My business kept going and going and going and then when I defended [my thesis], I was like, huh, I got a business here, what do I do. I decided ultimately because I had built a solid following online and I sort of figured out how e-commerce had worked. It seemed stable enough that going the route of being an entrepreneur instead of becoming a professional laboratory researcher seemed like the better option for me. That was about six years ago. We've been operating Circuit Breaker Labs and just this last year we became Because Science.
Amanda: The whole, Because Science part of the business is all shiny and new. The whole point behind that was that the last five years, my work has been getting even more and more science-y. When I got routers, which are those big black boxes behind me, it really opened up the possibilities for what I could create. I could go from say, just making circles and covering them in resin to doing actual, cut out pieces and art. So of course, because I'm a nerd, I started making Erlenmeyer flasks and DNA shapes and things like that.
Carrie: I love it. I love the variety of stuff you have in the store because there's basically every kind of science represented. I believe I saw some dinosaurs at some point at one point in time; there's biology represented. There's obviously chemistry represented. I think I've seen atoms and you've even done stuff that maybe isn't science-y, but I want to say you've done names and flags and all sorts of things. So that's, that's super cool!
(5:56 - 12:18) The Process of Upcycling PCBs
Amanda: I love the rainbow stuff. Orange and purple PCBs are really hard to come by. I just love rainbows, my hair's actually dyed rainbow – just super faded. [Amanda holds up a rainbow pendant in resin] I’ll put this one up close, if you can see that. They’re individual strips of PCB!
Carrie: Yeah, I can see it when you kind of move it around.
Amanda: I like showing off as many colors within a single piece as I can.
Carrie: I'm surprised the purple's hard to come by with all of us maker people always using OSH Park for things. Do we just not give up our circuit boards very easily? Is that what I'm hearing?
Amanda: Possibly, just like, I'd expect to see a lot more turquoise, like Arduino color. Most of what I end up using are motherboards and server boards. Larger scale items work better with my process, as well. I have gotten some purple boards by way of makers upcycling their materials with me – which is awesome! I have an upcycling program. So, I encourage people if they've got boards that they want to get rid of, we give store credit.
Carrie: Ah, there you go. So how does that process work? Because I'm sure that there will be some people watching either now or later that will definitely have spare circuit boards lying around that they could send you.
Amanda: Yeah, we have the details spelled out on our website, but basically get in touch! Let me know what you have, because I can't necessarily take everything. I've taken on this sort of mantra for keeping the studio tidier, in that I'd prefer to not buy supplies or take on materials that I can't immediately assign a purpose to. Otherwise, I wouldn't be able to see over any desk because it would be covered in stuff that I could turn into something someday. I'm sure all creators can relate to that. So, I have to sort of filter what comes in, but motherboards are a go, for sure.
Carrie: So, do you prefer to have components on your boards or not? Or do you prefer to have only surface Mount to a certain height and the through holes all removed?
Amanda: It depends on what we're making. If we're making an art piece and space in the frame permits, I'll keep as many components as I can. Just like when I’m making jewelry items, we use metal cups called bezels so that all the edges and back are completely covered. It's an aesthetic thing, but it's also kind of a safety thing. I don't think you really want PCB rubbing on your skin.
Carrie: Yeah, fiberglass splinters are no good.
Amanda: [Amanda holds up an example of donated PCB] Depending on how deep they are, like these deeper ones, these are almost 4mm tall. You can fit almost anything except the really big stuff. Voltage regulators will fit in here crystal oscillators will fit in here, but I have to clip big capacitors and PCI stuff. I prefer to keep on as much as I can.
Carrie: So probably no connectors of most sorts, but anything up to 4mm or so tall. Speaking of fiberglass splinters and things like that, circuit boards or not, I can't imagine that they are actually a fun material to work with because the dust is really, I'm not sure if toxic is necessarily the right word. It definitely is glass so inhaling it can cut up your lungs and things like that. Even though glass as material itself is relatively inert with your body.
Amanda: Yeah, change the size of stuff and it changes how it interacts with your body.
Carrie: Yeah. I can sort of see your routers and the first thing that I noticed is that they're completely enclosed. Do you have a vacuum system going and a capture system for dust? How does that all work?
Amanda: That's basically it. If we have to do anything outside, we'll work under a shop-vac hooked up to a clamp. I'm sure you can see over my shoulder, there's respirators and face shields and safety goggles and all sorts of stuff back there. I really love rubber coated garden gloves to protect my hands when I'm handling stuff. Not only is dust not getting into my skin, I'm also not getting any of the wires poking through so I can handle things.
Amanda: You can actually look at my hands and not tell I've been working with circuit boards all day. When it comes to routing, there's vacuum systems there as you mentioned and an enclosed system which was very important to me. Someday, we'll have to graduate away from these. These are Carveys [series of CNC machine by Inventables] but because Inventables doesn’t make them anymore, they're barely servicing them anymore and they have no more replacement parts. We're just going to run these until we can't anymore. Then we'll have to build a custom enclosure system, because that's really important to me, especially if this is a longer-term project for us where we're years and years working with circuit boards. I don't want any of that stuff building up in the studio, in our lungs, or on our skin since we've got to consider both sides of it.
Carrie: Yeah, I guess I was just kind of thinking of the fiberglass in particular, but I'm sure that you get lead-based solder and things like that. So, it actually is pretty toxic to be grinding all that stuff up into small pieces and breathing. This is probably not something that you want to do at home, unless you have really geared yourself out, have a well-ventilated area, and aren't contaminating your garden with.
Amanda: Exactly, I have studio clothes and studio shoes, so all that stuff is contained within this area. I also don't want this contaminating my own house or other people I interact with. The other thing is, that's why we also don't laser cut them because I don't want any of that possibly leaking into our air. If there are any ventilation issues, it's just not a risk I'm willing to take.
(23:16 - 35:53) Applying Science to Business & Handmade Items
Amanda: We opened Because Science, the retail storefront in October of last year, and we ran it for five months. We just closed up at the end of last month.
Carrie: That was the plan at the beginning to sort of be a pop-up shop?
Amanda: Yes, it was planned to be a pop-up so that I could gather data. I wanted to know what people would want to buy, what they'd be interested in. Merchandising in a store is a whole different can of worms than merchandising for craft shows. I wanted to sort of learn the ropes of that; I wanted to know things like conversion rates and if people came in off the street, would they buy stuff? I'm only used to conversion rates with respect to online and craft shows and they're very different.
Amanda: That proved to be the case for the store. It was also very different, in a good way. So, with that data now, I have a much better idea of what to do. Because Science 2.0 will be hopefully a permanent location. We already know what sort of KPIs to look for when it comes to choosing a location. Foot counts, area income levels, and how many people transit the road in front of the store every single day. Things like that can help me make informed decisions about what our revenue capabilities are. If advertising is not part of the solution. If we were just a store relying only on foot traffic, would we survive? Which is an important baseline to establish, because if you can't pay rent, you can't pay rent. It has to work out of the box immediately. Now that we're looking for new places, I can apply that data to build fairly trustworthy projections so I can make sound decisions. When you walked into the store, I had it organized to not scare away nonscientists. Plants and animals were in the front and then further back you get into space and dinosaurs, which I consider natural history, but it ended up just being all dinosaur stuff. Then even further back, you start to get into mathematics, chemistry, biology, computer science, and engineering.
Amanda: The way I organized the store, it was partially by item type. We had a whole stationary wall, we had a whole wall for mugs, and all the jewelry for the most part was together. But then other than those specific sections, it was organized by science. So, if someone wanted a chemistry gift, they'd go straight to the chemistry section. I knew exactly how much space we had for each section. So that informed my buying decisions. If we've got a gap in chemistry, it's time to go look for another product to fill this. We've already got mugs, we've already got jewelry, I've got scarves. What else can we get that will fill that? It turns out finding handmade science stuff is really hard and very limited. I ended up choosing some not handmade items, so things like these 3d puzzle things that I found that are really cool.
Carrie: Yeah. So, talk to me about the handmade aspect and also what your definition of handmade is because of course, like Etsy's definition has changed a lot over the years. What portion of it has to be made by hand, is small business okay?
Amanda: That's sort of how I see it. Part of that metamorphosis has also been from being in DC. So, where I was before in Rochester-
Carrie: That answers Tom’s question, which is, where was your store located? Which was Washington DC.
Amanda: It was technically Vienna, Virginia, just outside of DC. We are hoping a 2.0 will be actually located in DC. So, in DC, when I do craft shows and things they're usually billed as vendor events. A notable example is the downtown holiday market where they promote small business. These tend to be like micro businesses – very, very small. But a lot of people here – because DC is such a multicultural city – it's extremely diverse. Maybe I'll be next to a vendor who is Turkish, and she designs jewelry; maybe she has people in her village she grew up in making [jewelry], she's not making it, but it's handmade. It wouldn't be considered handmade for a craft show, but is still handmade, just not by the business owner all the time.
Amanda: It gets a little gray. So that's small business to me. That's what I want to end up supporting as best I can. I did carry things from solo-preneurs where it was just them [working with] bigger agencies. Like these pencil sets I have, I love these, these are biodomes and atmospheres. Each different color is supposed to represent a different layer of the atmosphere or different biodome colors; aquatic is blue, grassland is green. I think they're incredibly nerdy and are a lot of fun, but the company that makes then is a little bit bigger. But I know that they're stamping these in-house, maybe the pencil blanks come from somewhere else, but they're still basically handmade. As you can tell I use a lot of machines in the work I make, but it's all hand finished, so our hands are still involved in that making process. I just want to, best I can, select things that are handmade, small business made, or locally made. Not exclusively, I don't want to limit myself because it would be very hard to stock a whole science gift shop with very tight restrictions. If I ran a handmade gift shop or locally made gift shop, that wouldn't be hard at all. There’re so many artists around here, but when I narrow the focus to science, it becomes very difficult. For example, there aren't very many science artists locally. I know a handful and that would not be enough to stock an entire store.
Carrie: Yeah. Things that are handmade, made in small quantities and small batches, they tend to be more expensive. So, having a little bit of a range of price points must be nice, too, so that everybody can find a little something.
Amanda: Yeah. I think that works a lot better in retail stores. For the longest time, I tried to not have a super low price point, like below $15 online, because there's so much work that goes into preparing a shipment that the profit you end up with is barely worth the effort. But when you're in a store and you're pricing things in bulk, you get economy of scale, and even though it's a small scale, it's still more scale than what you can do with shipping. So, it's much easier to have little stickers, pencil sets, lower price point items and have it actually be worth your time. That also helps with the conversion rate, too. Someone comes in and they don't really want to leave empty handed. So, if we give them opportunities to spend even $5 it ends up being a much better situation overall for everybody.
Carrie: Yeah, absolutely. We hear you on the “it being difficult to make things that are at small price points worthwhile and efficient for online stuff.” I definitely have some of those same struggles with some of our soldering kits, which is part of the reason that we don't really have any soldering kits that are under $10; not only do we have to do all the kitting for them ourselves, but the amount of time it takes just to print the label, pack up the order, and stuff like that is a factor. I mean, Robyn's pretty darn good at it and she's pretty efficient, but still. We have a few things that are under that [price point], but they're pretty much just the circuit board rulers, which, we just grab and package and that's it. They don’t require any kitting or any work when they come in. What else do you have in the store? What are the specific science disciplines that you absolutely try to cover? You talked about chemistry, math, physics, and biology. What about computer science?
Amanda: Definitely. It's harder to find stuff for computer science, but I find other roundabout ways. So maybe it's hard to find a punny coding sticker, but it's less hard to find Ada Lovelace stuff, or I design it myself. I designed this card set, for example, it has eight greeting cards with quotes from women in STEM. I tried to cover as much variety in terms of where in the world they're from, what discipline they studied, some people are well-known, some people folks have never heard of. That's the other great thing about being a maker with a store, if I'm having trouble filling an area of the store, I can just design it myself. That's a lot of where our greeting cards are, too. I think our greeting cards, which has sort of been a new adventure in the last year or so, is popular because you can't really find science cards and you never have more than one option for an occasion. So, all our cards are all science. We have science puns, science holidays, laboratory warmings, PhD defense cards, and things like that – things that you don't really find anywhere else. We have to design it ourselves because they literally exist nowhere, but I think they're worthwhile having and it's always fun to watch people hanging out over by the card section. I can always hear giggling. I'm really big on science puns and it's really striking a chord with customers, too. I love that.
(41:00 – 47:37) Making Custom Pieces
Carrie: So, you mentioned taking custom orders. How do people contact you about that and what kind of custom work do you take on?
Amanda: For simple, straightforward things, [for example, the skylines] we have a specific listing just for skylines. You pick the size, you tell us what color you want and what city, and then we make it. With the site redesign, we'll have an image upload feature so if there's a specific skyline you want us to work from, it'll be roped into the whole checkout process instead of you having to email us it. Same thing for flags or other straight forward things. We have a simple listing for states. We haven't made every state yet… If you want you know, West Virginia, we've never made it before, but it's not exactly a stretch to create that for anybody. I call those straightforward customs. Then for more adventurous projects, right now we're working on a system to help with that, to help outline what that actually looks like.
Amanda: An example I actually just have sitting on my desk [Amanda holds up a custom brochure]. I'm redoing this. This was our old custom brochure to help people sort of see what we can do; whether it's ornaments, art, key chains or whatever, but within those product categories, what can we actually do? It's very hard for people to understand how we turn circuit boards into this stuff, let alone what we can do with it. It's just not something people can brain very well.
Carrie: Yeah, they need to be shown examples.
Amanda: Examples are very helpful, and we've definitely gotten a lot more custom work the more we put them out at shows. It gives people a much better visual on what can be done, or they might say, “Hey, I see you've got this, can you do USB?” “Can you change the color, or can you change the size?” Simple stuff like that. Some of the other things we also take on, for example, are corporate gifting kinds of orders where we'll put logos on stuff. Like these badge reels that we make, I can embed in that resin layer somebody's logo, I can do those sorts of projects. The ones that I find most fascinating are the wall installations. We've got a couple under our belt at this point and each one is different and completely customized to the client and what they want. Generally, I think all the things we've done so far have been logos. The biggest one we did was about five feet wide.
Carrie: Wow. So how many circuit boards are involved with that? I imagine you'd have to map out the pieces and cut them in different shapes. How do you do that?
Amanda: Yeah, so it depends specifically on what we're doing. The most challenging one was an equilateral triangle made up of three regular trapezoids, and when you organize the trapezoids, the inside negative space makes an equal lateral triangle. It was not a solid piece because where it would connect on the vertices was nothing – it was just an intersection point. I had to create it using bar stock; I can't think of the word, but basically, I used these connector pieces to create their logo as it would be free-standing because they wanted one solid piece, not multiple pieces to hang on the wall. So that was a bit of an engineering feat. That project because of its size ended up, I think we used 22 circuit boards to make that happen.
Carrie: Wow. Did they all have to be the same color too?
Amanda: It depends. For that project, each trapezoid was a different shade of blue. We tried our hardest to pull out three different shades of blue, which is difficult when you're working with e-waste. Basically, it was a cobalt blue, a royal blue, and a turquoise used to get the three different shades. It didn't exactly match their logo, but they didn’t really care; they just wanted the difference to be there. Color matching is not really a thing we can do. It gets as close as it gets.
Carrie: Yeah. You're not going to be able to Pantone match a circuit board logo, sorry.
Amanda: No, with your logo [Alpenglow], I wouldn't be able to do it exactly, but I could get creative using pixels of circuit boards to create that visual effect where if you stood back, it would look like a gradient. So, I’ve got some funky workarounds to make that work. Just like if someone wants their logo 23” wide; I can't fit a 23” circuit board on my router and I'd be hard pressed to find a circuit board that's that big. They’re out there, but not in my stash and probably not in a color they'd want. I use Photoshop and various other programs to sort of chop it up into sensible sub shapes so we can build a composite image.
Carrie: Cool. That sounds like a lot of work for a custom piece. Like, a lot of work. How do you go about estimating the price for that? Because you might not know how difficult that logo is or if you have enough stock on hand to do it. How does that process work?
Amanda: I have a spreadsheet for that. Based on the size, I can figure it out how many circuit boards I need, and then I can calculate based on surface area and assign a rate to either surface area or whatever metric I want to use, based on the project. Then, there's a series of assumptions that go into it, like the costs. It's pretty levelized by area. So, it's actually not too bad to estimate. Now that we've done a few, I sort of have stuff to work from. I can tell by looking at a project if it’s one that’s going to be a pain in the butt or if it's going to be more straightforward.
Carrie: There might be a little bit of a pain in the butt upcharge because I know this one is going to take me a few more hours in Photoshop of piecing this thing up. Yeah, that makes sense.
(1:12:23 – 1:18:34) Diversity and Getting People Interested in Sciences
Carrie: That reminds me. I wanted to do a shout out for your newsletter because your newsletter is awesome! It's called New Science Friday and it's a little fun thing that pops up in my mailbox every Friday. And it's like, oh, let's see what Amanda has going on this week and you always feature a really cool, usually woman, scientist. How do you do your research on that? How do you get ideas for who to feature or do you just know everybody?
Amanda: Well, no, I hardly ever know anyone I'm posting about. It's just someone I find on Instagram who posted something interesting. So sometimes it's, “this is what it's like,” “this really sucks,” “this is really great,” or “here's what I'm struggling with right now,” “here's what it took me to get to my PhD” or whatever they're doing. We specifically pick POC or LGBT people to feature because those groups are always extremely underrepresented in the sciences. I want to help normalize diversity in STEM. I think it's incredibly important and there've been research studies that say research groups are more effective when they're diverse. So, I want to build that up as much as I can. So that's what I'm doing with that, and definitely focusing on women and women identifying people as much as I can, because again, that's another area that needs a representation.
Amanda: A lot of times what I'm seeing by doing this, is that I've read all these posts and see what people say about not having role models growing up or not knowing anyone else who was in their field. Social media has really helped people get connected and feel not so isolated. I want to make sure that if anyone's reading our newsletter or comes across stuff we do, maybe there's this person they didn't know before that they know of now. I want to help share that.
Carrie: Yeah, that's awesome because I'm not only keeping track of what you're doing and stuff, but I'm always learning about somebody that I didn't know about before and that's really cool.
Amanda: It's also very down to earth. I could run bios on Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie, but I don't think it's as impactful as hearing from someone who is in it right now, going through it right now. Talking about things like imposter syndrome and all the other issues you come across when you're trying to advance in the sciences. But also, I'll cover people maybe not even on a science track but related somehow like I'm really excited about Black birding week and bringing citizens science.
Carrie: What is that?
Amanda: It's just a bunch of Black birders who post certain hashtags and bring awareness about birdwatching.
Amanda: One of the things that I also wanted to achieve with Because Science specifically was making science fun, making science not this scary incomprehensible block. One of the ways to do that, I think is by, putting plants and animals in the front of the store. Ultimately, I wanted to install bird feeders and bee boxes and bat boxes and whatever else it was that we could do to bring citizen science into the equation. So, when people walk into the store, they can do something, learn something. We have a microscope in the store and with a sign that says, “Turn it on, see what it does!” Occasionally, I'll bring out diffraction gratings and be like here take this, go look at a light, see what it does, and tell me what you see. There's no quiz, there's no test. It's low pressure. It's just like, look at this. Isn't this cool. We can explain it later. I just want to hook you on this cool thing that we have that.
Carrie: Totally. I think that a lot of that is what I strive to do. What we here strive to do with the circuit board designs is make them fun or funny or cute or something like that. Through them being relatable in that way, then use them to teach soldering or teach Arduino coding or something else. Now that you've identified with this. Now, here's how it works. I think that there are a lot of self-imposed barriers, especially in women, especially in anybody who hasn't really actively been encouraged in science from the time that they were kids, that science is hard, or I can't understand science. That's for other people, it's not for me. I think that trying to break down those barriers is really important because science is for everybody. A lot of things, especially that we do as engineers, are skillsets that are developed through just a lot of practice and familiarity with things. Once you start in on something and getting that practice and getting that familiarity, you can actually learn a lot just on your own. I think a lot of people just don't know that. They think, I had to go to school in order to do this or I had to have a degree in it or whatever.
Amanda: Yeah, that's awesome. I loved it when people were walking around and they come up and they'd be like, so I just wanted to see what this was. I'm not a scientist, but this is cool. Can you tell me what this joke means? Or maybe they found a joke and laughed at it. I mix in hard science with softer stuff.