The Art, and Science, of the Biodesign Challenge

6:12 minutes

Courtesy of the Stabilimentum team
Courtesy of the Stabilimentum team

Last month, art and design students from across the country gathered in New York City for the first-ever Biodesign Summit, the culmination of a semester-long challenge to imagine a biotech product for the future. The students took inspiration from the natural world and advancements in technology to design products that might one day improve our daily lives and ecosystems. Science Friday’s Chau Tu describes the Summit and some of the projects presented there, such as an air purifier filled with spiderwebs, a toilet insert that filters estrogen, and a cactus-like water harvester.

Segment Guests

Chau Tu

Chau Tu is an associate editor at Slate Plus. She was formerly Science Friday’s story producer/reporter.

Segment Transcript

Earlier this month New York played host to an event that was a little bit art show a little bit science fair, the Biodesign Summit. It was the culmination of a semester-long project for art and design students across the country.

And our own Chau Tu and Luke Groskin stepped in. Science writer web producer Chau Tu is here to tell us about it.

CHAU TU: Hi, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Good to have you.

CHAU TU: Good to see you.

IRA FLATOW: So what was this event all about? Who was it for?

CHAU TU: So, it is basically a bunch of art and design students from around the country. And they came from schools like the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, FIT, Carnegie Mellon. And they were asked to create a product or a project that was heavily based in bioscience, to look forward into thinking about how biotechnology could affect our environments and our lives in the future.

And so there were nine finalists. And that’s what this summit was. These teams were kind of showing off these projects.

IRA FLATOW: Tell us. Did they have to do the same project? Or everybody came up with their own project?

CHAU TU: There were different themes that each team had to think about. And so there was themes of water, sustainability, the environment. So each one of them had their own challenge for themselves.

IRA FLATOW: So then, when you say bioscience, then anything having to do with living, I guess.

CHAU TU: Yes, yeah, definitely. There was lots of living things, including growing slime mold and–

IRA FLATOW: Growing–

CHAU TU: Yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Well they had that in Florida too.


A lot of that down there. Our video producer Luke Groskin got a chance to ask Biodesign Challenge program director, Daniel Grushkin, about the project. And here’s what he said.

DANIEL GRUSHKIN: We are now in a culture where everything’s about the pitch. You go to an accelerator, and they have a demo day. And it’s all about sell, sell, sell. We’re trying to do something very different. We’re saying, think, think, think.

The three goals of the challenge have been, one, to create a community of scientists, designers, and artists who are all collaborating together. Inform the public about what the potentials of the technology might be. And number three is, hey, let’s see some fresh ideas in the space of biotechnology. Let’s see what we can do.

IRA FLATOW: So did you see a lot of those fresh ideas?

CHAU TU: Yeah, there were very, very creative ideas. There was one team who created these air filter masks, these wearables really. So one of the ideas was, you have this mask, and there’s a cartridge inside of it that uses spider webs. And that’s based off research that spider webs have electrostatic properties that might be able to catch microorganisms in the air. And that might purify the air around you.

There was also another idea about putting a liner in your toilet that can collect excess estrogen that was being put into the waste water. And that can later affect our health. So there were lots of creative ideas about how we can use science and solve problems in our environment.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International, talking with our Science Friday web reporter Chau Tu. You can read her article and see a video by Luke Groskin at sciencefriday.com/biodesign.

Being at the convention– or is that what they called it?

CHAU TU: A summit.

IRA FLATOW: A summit.


IRA FLATOW: That’s a much newer type of word. Did you have any of your favorites? Did you say, wow! That was terrific.

CHAU TU: Well, the team that actually won had a really interesting design. They were a team from FIT, So mostly–

IRA FLATOW: Fashion Institute?

CHAU TU: Yes, Fashion Institute of Technology. So again, students that were interested in sustainability in fashion and textile production, so they used– they started working with this thing called alginate, which comes from brown algae. And they created this sort of new yarn. It was biosustainable and it stretched and kind of–

IRA FLATOW: The algae made the yarn?

CHAU TU: The algae made out of the–

IRA FLATOW: Oh, made out of the yarn.

CHAU TU: Yeah, I’m sorry. The algae is the yarn, yes.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, yarn made out of algae?

CHAU TU: Yes. So, obviously–

IRA FLATOW: And so what did they do with it?

CHAU TU: So again, these are just creative– these are just the beginning phases of these ideas. There is still a lot of research, a lot of development that needs to be done. But it’s a lot of creativity that comes from this.

IRA FLATOW: Did they make a garment out of the yarn?

CHAU TU: They did not, not yet.

IRA FLATOW: Not yet.

CHAU TU: But basically, they kind of mixed it with water and different other sorts of chemicals to see how they could stretch it and how they could work with it and later develop it into something that might be viable.

IRA FLATOW: Well, did you see anything that was viable already? Anything practical?

CHAU TU: One of the most practical projects that I saw was this panel that was based off of a cactus plant. So basically they had spikes that were modeled after cactus spines. And each of the cactus spines had grooves, just like a normal cactus spine does. And that can collect water from fog in the air. And so they wanted to put that on the sides of buildings and hopefully collect enough water that we could use again.

IRA FLATOW: So then they made the spines like a cactus has? And the idea is well, we don’t need to have just the cactus do this.


IRA FLATOW: We could put these spines on other things. And then in the dew that forms–

CHAU TU: Exactly, in the desert, there’s a ton of morning fog. And they could collect that in the morning. And then we can, hopefully, use that water again.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, and people come– was it a big turnout? People interested?

CHAU TU: Yes. It was great. It was a lot of creative ideas. And I think people were really excited about it. And these students, I think, were thinking very differently, kind of outside the box of what they’re usually used to.


CHAU TU: And thinking about science and how to use that into stuff that we could use.

IRA FLATOW: And your article on the website describes your experience there?


IRA FLATOW: All right, Chau Tu is our Sci Fri web reporter. And you can read her article and see the video by Luke Groskin, who brought all his stuff, video stuff, out there, at sciencefriday.com/biodesign. Thank you, Chau.

CHAU TU: Bye, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: We’ll see you back in the office.

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About Charles Bergquist

As Science Friday’s director and senior producer, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

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