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From Studio to Lab: Integrating Design with Biology

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From Studio to Lab: Integrating Design with Biology

By Wing T. Dyana So.


Growing up, I was intimidated to approach science through the traditional academic framework and class structure. I knew that was the common way to learn science, but I knew that it was not the ideal method for me to learn. I liked science, but I conceded that my interests were limited to engaging with it through more mainstream means, from magazines to films.

But when I heard that the Fine Arts Department at Penn was offering an integrative studio course on Biological Design, I had to give the opportunity a double-take. This studio, co-taught by Professors Orkan Telhan (PennDesign) and Karen Hogan (Biology), was made specifically for students outside of the science fields, particularly to encourage students to approach science anew through the perspective of design and art. Such an approach made a lot of sense to me, and despite my cold feet about learning science, I felt that there was a lot of potential for growth and insight to gain through this unique course.

In the fall of 2015, I joined six fellow undergraduates and two graduate students, all coming from backgrounds that ranged from Digital Media Design to Visual Studies, in Penn’s first-ever course on biological design.

 


Biological Design: An Integrative Studio — Science Background Not Required

 

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    • Professor Orkan Telhan demonstrates proper pipetting techniques during the Violacein lab.

    • Biological Design lab 4
    • Lab experiment: combining DNA.

    • Biological Design - Lab notes
    • Wing T. Dyana So's lab notes on Synthetic Biology.

    • Biological Design lab 3
    • Karen Hogan demonstrates how to gently flick at mini test tubes to ensure no droplets of liquid remain on the inner walls of the tube.

    • Biological Design Lab
    • Violacein Factory Kit: DNA Parts.

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    • Lab experiment: chromobacterium violaceum.

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Perhaps this idea of a bunch of college students with a diverse range of backgrounds outside the sciences donning lab coats to make art may seem unsettling and hasty. I knew I had reservations initially because I was so aware of how uncommon it was to find artists in labs. From the beginning I wondered about whether we were in the ‘right’ place, whether this field was in the right place. But this is exactly what “Biological Design” was all about. As D.I.Y. Biology becomes increasingly accessible, and synthetic biology continues to progress alongside technological breakthroughs like CRISPR (Clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeats), the future is here whether we like it or not. This course confronts this reality by introducing students to the emerging world of Biological Design, BioArt, and applied learning in the lab towards final art projects for exhibition.

Our class met twice a week: the first class was a seminar, while the second was a lab at Goddard. This division of contextual learning complemented the teaching duo of Orkan and Karen, whose teamwork I highly appreciated and admired. It was obvious how much time each of them spent thoroughly familiarizing themselves with the other’s discipline, towards their mutual objective of building this course at Penn. There was a lot of support, communication, and encouragement throughout.

The first half of “Biological Design” introduced the class to Biological Design as its own discipline, emphasizing how much it stemmed from the art and design disciplines but was also inherently distinguished because of the content and nature of the subject matter. We identified relevant contemporary works of art (e.g. The Victimless Leather Jacket (2004) by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr; Ear on Arm (2007) by Stelarc), and explored the ethical implications inherent to this kind of work. Guest speakers such as Karen Ingram and Dan Grushkin visited our class to not only present their professional encounters with BioArt and Biological Design, but also provide feedback on student projects.

 

    • Karen Ingram
    • Artist and designer Karen Ingram visits the class.

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    • Artist and designer Karen Ingram visits the class.

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    • Artist and designer Karen Ingram visits the class.

    • Karen Ingram Visit
    • Artist and designer Karen Ingram visits the class.

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Student projects designed for a final exhibition were the focus of the second half of the course. Our class divided into four groups, all encouraged to consider any ideas that we felt aligned well with what we understood thus far to be Biological Design. Every week, we presented ideas (conceptual meanings and design variations) based on our own research and received feedback on them as a class. Once ideas and designs were settled on, materials were purchased through funding allotted to this course, and groups delved into the hands-on learning with these newly purchased materials. Final projects directly taught students how to create an appropriate and captivating narrative to communicate their work to a wide-ranging audience, how to manage their own time and delegate tasks within their groups, and how to prepare their work for a formal art exhibition in Physical Lab of the Morgan Fine Arts Building.

Furthermore, by default, each group in “Biological Design” was also ‘competing’ with one another for the chance to represent Penn in the Biological Design Challenge 2016, a national design competition and invitational. Each participating university was given a theme, and Penn worked with the theme of “energy.” This competition was not greatly prioritized during the second half of the course, perhaps to minimize the added weight of pressure.

 

Khitophony and Other Inquiries into Biological Design

 

For our final project, Jenny Ho (Fine Arts, ‘16) and I submitted “Khitophony,” a cicada-inspired exploration, performance, and art installation of sound through chitin, the second most abundant polymer on Earth.

From insect wings to crustacean shells, chitin has protected organisms on Earth long before humans came into existence. By removing an acetyl group, scientists created chitosan, an industrial form of chitin that is reproducible in labs to create everyday medicinal drugs, agricultural fertilizers, and most recently, biodegradable consumer plastics.

Fascinated by the periodical cicadas — insects with distinct mating calls typical of the American northeast that leave millions of their molten shells every thirteen to seventeen years — Jenny and I wondered about the relationship between chitin as acoustic exoskeleton material and the cicada’s muscular tymbal, and we challenged ourselves to develop instrument and/or installation designs towards that inquiry.

Working in the Department of Biology’s BSL2 teaching Lab, Jenny and I created several chitosan films by following lab procedures. These films would be used as tambourine covers. From an initial glance, chitosan films look like any other thin piece of transparent and partially-rigid plastic. But when water interacts with chitosan, the film gradually breaks down and shrivels into gel. The likeness in look but difference in decomposition between chitosan film and typical plastic became an integral element in our instrument design. It inspired us to incorporate water into our installation, thereby adding a performative element to our installation that would demonstrate this unique property of chitosan.

To make this visible action audible, Jenny and I attached contact microphones to our mini tambourines, which we covered with either chitosan film or plastic parafilm. We placed these tambourines over a garden bed and beneath an overhanging structure from which we poured water through a custom-designed filter. This filter allowed droplets to fall specifically over the tambourine surfaces. The contact mics picked up on these strategic sounds, amplifying the ‘music’ made by our khitophone

We recieved much-appreciated assistance with the assembly of our garden from Geraldine Lavin, the Biology Department's Greenhouse Technician, and with the ampflied sound components of our installation from Joseph Giampietro, a PennDesign graduate student.
 

    • Khitophony 1
    • "Khitophony"

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    • "Khitophony"

    • BioDesign Wing 1
    • "Khitophony"

    • BioDesign Wing 2
    • "Khitophony"

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To emphasize the idea that our instrument was a one-time performance piece, Jenny and I invited Lee Dietterich, a Ph.D. candidate in Biology, to provide musical accompaniment. On the day of our exhibition, the khitophone — with Jenny pouring water overhead the tambourines — accompanied Lee on clarinet, me on guitar, and a digital recording of cicadas’ mating calls.

 



The other groups created completely different projects, demonstrating the wide breadth of research and focus one could pursue within "Biological Design."

Mónica Butler, Rebecca Van Sciver, and Jiwon Woo designed “Stabilimentum,” a wearable mask that filters air through the electrostatic properties of spider webs. A spider lives within a removable habitat dome that can be attached to a wearable facemask. This product reconsiders a new and alternative coexistence between humans and spiders.

James Bartolozzi, Sarah Krueger, and Morgan Snyder designed “Seepscape,” a plan to embellish the methane-rich, deep sea floors with gyroidal structures that encourage and maximize the growth of symbiotic bacterial colonies. Using a 3D printer, they created physical samples of the gyroid shape and successfully grew Pseudomonas putida bacteria to prove the structural ability of the gyroid to support and increase bacterial growth.

Rebecca Hallac and Vincent Snagg created “Probiome,” a product-based idea that introduces personalized probiotic microbiome to everyday objects. One physical prototype they made was a spray bottle that attaches to a programmed, projected keyboard and distributes probiotic microbiome on to the table surfacing, cleaning the table while also providing healthy microbiomes (specifically Staphylococcus epidermidis) and attempting to eliminate unhealthy microbiomes (such as Staphylococcus aureus). A video demonstrates a future application of their idea as a wrist wearable.  

 

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    • "Stabilimentum"

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    • "Stabilimentum"

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    • "Stabilimentum"

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    • "Stabilimentum"

    • BioDesign exhibit – Stabilimentum
    • "Stabilimentum"

    • Seepscape 3
    • “Seepscape”

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    • “Seepscape”

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    • “Seepscape”

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    • “Seepscape”

    • Probiome 4
    • "Probiome"

    • Probiome 4
    • "Probiome"

    • Probiome 3
    • "Probiome"

    • Probiome 2
    • "Probiome"

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    • "Probiome"

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Reflections on Biological Design: Content, Project, and Future
 


Throughout the fall semester, I felt very drawn into the world of Biological Design and very much part of a journey into something emerging, challenging, and unfamiliar. Yet, unsurprisingly, it is exactly this kind of uncharted terrain that often attracts artists and designers like myself and my classmates.

In one of our classes, Orkan asked the following provocative question: “What makes BioArt distinct from other kinds of art?” This was the first time I looked back at my creative work and felt a freedom to create something that challenged the confines and expectations of traditional gallery presentations. Through “Khitophony,” I was able to explore the making of a work towards BioArt that was literally and figuratively in dialogue with the concept of ‘life’ and was, in its own way, a ‘living’ piece with a ‘lifespan’ limited to the exhibition.

I learned how difficult having such a wide and free range for idea inception and implementation was, and how one quickly learns new skills by stepping outside of one’s comfort zones. At a certain point, stepping outside my comfort zone became so frequent that it had become banal. In retrospect, this is a design perspective I am glad to have had a chance to develop, for it empowers me with a confidence to approach any project challenges less so by identifying what I do not know, and more so by what I can learn to apply the critical, problem-solving skills and creativity I have.

The integrative studio, “Biological Design,” gave me a chance to explore complicated topics and perspectives that align very much with where the future is heading, literally and ideologically. The course sparked profound reconsiderations of how one defines life, nature, and design. This course also helped me gain a more informed understanding of GMOs, good bacteria, diversity of microbiomes, and the increasing accessibility of D.I.Y. Biology kits, workshops, and tutorials. In addition to clearing up some of my own misconceptions about synthetic biology, “Biological Design” also helped me see the challenges of communicating science to the general public. I truly think critical art and design are among the most significant forms to consider and incorporate in efforts to improve this communication.
 

"Biological Design: Integrative Design Studio" Fall 2015 class website>
 

BYO: Four Inquiries into Biological Design exhibition photos>

 

Dyana Wing So is a senior majoring in Visual Studies and minoring in Cinema Studies. At Penn, Dyana is also a speech adviser for Communication Within the Curriculum (CWiC), a research fellow representing Du Bois College College House, and a student ambassador for Penn Art & Culture.
 


Edited by Mariah Macias.