Category: Biomimicry Curriculum

A week in the life of a new PhD fellow

Hello everyone!

My name is Elena Stachew and as of January 2017, I am the Biomimicry PhD Fellow for Biohabitats, Cleveland Water Alliance (CWA) and Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR). Check out my biography here. Although every fellow’s schedule is unique, we each have to balance our time between sponsor(s), research and other program responsibilities. Though I am still learning the ins and outs, I thought I would give a better sense of what that balance can look like by describing my typical week as a new fellow:

  • Mondays & Tuesdays – Biohabitats office

Living in Cleveland, I love the start of the week as my commute is just to the opposite side of town, in Little Italy – University Circle. I haven’t started taking Cleveland’s rail line (RTA) yet, but I plan to soon in order to cut down on driving. Biohabitats Great Lakes Regional Office is housed in Murray Hill Galleries, an old school building converted into a hodgepodge of art galleries, boutique shops, law & architect firms, music studios and a yoga studio. I also enjoy being close to my alma mater, Case Western Reserve University, as I am able to meet former professors and colleagues for lunch on occasion!

On Mondays, Biohabitats has morning weekly staff meetings and in the afternoons, I have a weekly check in with Chris Streb, an ecological engineer and Bioworks team lead based in the Baltimore office, by phone. Bioworks is Biohabitats’ research, development and innovation arm, learn more here.

Only just shy of two months in, I take the days in the office to:

  • Review literature on ecosystem services and metrics,
  • Learn the Biohabitats consulting practice areas of ecological restoration, landscape architecture and regenerative design,
  • Talk with interested employees about their level of knowledge in biomimicry and active projects,
  • Explore Biohabitats Technical Resources library,
  • And read through my RSS feeds and Google alerts on biomimicry and other relevant topics.

If I find an article on biomimicry interesting and/or relevant, I post on Yammer – a Microsoft social network collaborative platform that Biohabitats uses.

My days involve a lot of reading and asking questions, and the first month involved several meetings with my three sponsors, but eventually, I’ll try my hand at applying biomimicry thinking to an active restoration, urban design or stormwater management project, post exploratory topics on Biohabitats Rhizome Blog or Leaf Litter quarterly newsletter, and host Brain Gardens and Walkabouts (Biohabitats terms for ‘lunch n’ learns’ and ‘end of the day brainstorming’ respectively).

I am also learning Biohabitats entire project process from client proposal submission to post-project monitoring in order to better understand how to add biomimicry as a value-added service. I was recently able to participate in an interview for the City of Cuyahoga Falls of Biohabitats design proposal for an ecological restoration project on Kelsey Creek.

I have also traveled some, to ODNR’s Office of Coastal Management in Sandusky and Biohabitats’ corporate headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland.

Biohabitats HQI snapped a few photos of their beautiful headquarters during my visit. One is shown here. There were so many plants; I immediately felt as if I walked into a botanical garden!

  • Wednesdays– Environmental Engineering Design & Biohabitats

Wednesday mornings, I have a class in Environmental Engineering Design at the University of Akron. The commute is 45 minutes to an hour. The class is about drinking water and wastewater treatment systems, and last week, I completed a group design project on a proposal for a groundwater treatment system of chlorinated solvents. I generally give myself an hour after class for any meetings scheduled with professors as I am still figuring out my adviser and advisory committee, then I drive back to Biohabitats to finish out the remainder of the work day. The last two weeks were an exception (hence the word – ‘typical’), as I needed more time on campus during the week to meet with my fellow classmates to work on this design project.

  • Thursdays & Fridays – University of Akron

Thursday afternoons, I have a class in Biomimicry Design & Application, where we are exploring bio-inspired ways to improve exercise equipment on long-term spaceflight missions in partnership with NASA Glenn Research Center’s Human Research Program. I come in late Thursday mornings to spend time on class readings and homework, meet with students in my classes for our design projects, as well as professors re: advisory committee and potential thesis topics.

Fridays, I have Environmental Engineering Design in the morning, followed by our afternoon Integrated Biosciences (IB) guest lecture series. I’ve heard interesting presentations on swarm intelligence, fish locomotion, architectural production using robotics and applied biomimicry. We are also able to participate in student lunches with our guest speakers before their lecture.

This past week, I helped organize the schedule of guest lecturer Julian Vincent, a retired professor from the University of Oxford active in the ontologies of biomimicry. See the following recent article for an overview of the topic: The trade-off- a central concept in biomimetics – published in 2016 by Bioinspired, Biomimetic
and Nanobiomaterials. I helped with the logistics of an all-day ontologies workshop followed by dinner, and a visit to Cleveland Institute of Art and discussion with Doug Paige, an industrial design professor and faculty partner in the Biomimicry Fellowship Program at the University of Akron.

As my schedule allows (which isn’t much!) and per my graduate student contract, I also serve as a QA/QC Contract Technician for the nuclear division of Five Star Products – a vestige of my former working life. The company manufactures safety-related concrete & grout products in Chardon, OH for nuclear power plants, for use in the construction of reactor bases, secondary containment and cooling towers.

I hope this gives you, the readers, a sense of how crazy yet exciting the life of a Biomimicry PhD Fellow can be! I am looking forward to the summer, in which I’ll have more time to spend with my three sponsors. The plan is to continue to explore potential thesis topics and learn how to connect my eventual thesis with my sponsor work program in the form of applied and practical research.

Look for more updates on this blog in the future, and feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn. Cheers and I look forward to the journey ahead!

Reflections from a guinea pig

I’m writing this blogpost, which will be my last on germiNature, still astonished that I defended my PhD work last week. Five years ago I embarked on this unknown journey as one of the three guinea pigs of this new PhD program in Biomimicry. A collaborative idea turning into a reality; Biomimicry being our mission and the glue for bringing people from all over the world together.

The desired outcome for a PhD student is being able to impact the field of study and contribute to its further development. Emily, Bill and I are publishing our dissertations in a couple of months, and it will be interesting to see how each of us completed the same goal with a different approach. But before jumping into a meta-analysis, I should first reflect on my outcomes.

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I have to admit that jumping is definitely a verb that describes me well. I don’t like to stay in the same place for too long. I started with the intention to take on a Biomimicry project from start to finish:

  1. Finding & understanding an interesting biological observation
  2. Abstracting biological principles into more general design principles
  3. Brainstorming and designing: Developing a biomimetic design
  4. Turning it into a commercial product

But it ended up quite differently…

My first 2, almost 3 years I spent on the first step, focusing on understanding UV reflection of avian eggshells. Many of my research efforts turned into dead ends. It wasn’t until I focused specifically on a fairly easy to distinguish characteristic of these eggshells (i.e. the cuticle, which is the outermost layer made from non-crystalized calcium carbonate and organic components) that I made advancements in biological understanding. The cuticle is at least one more factor that contributes to differences in UV coloration.

Being the kind of jumpy person that I am, and because of this slow and tedious process, I started losing my motivation and interest in really wanting to dig deeper and find the ultimate answers. I started taking on other projects, which were fueling me again to continue pursuing my PhD. These projects allowed me to also experience the other steps involved in a biomimicry process.

One project was to test if eggshells can be used to provide UV protection since chicken eggshells showed high reflectance in the same region of terrestrial solar radiation that is most harmful to biological (e.g. our skin) and synthetic polymers (e.g. building materials, paint). Our results, recently published in the journal Sustainability, showed that eggshell pieces indeed provide effective and durable photo-protection. However, future research is needed to investigate if eggshells in a more industrial format (e.g. ground into particles) will also provide high photo-protection. It’s important to note that turning a waste product (we create tons of eggshell waste per day) into a useful product is considered bio-utilization and not biomimicry. Not that one is necessarily better than the other, yet, making that distinction is important for identifying when one should consider pursuing the development of a mimic rather than using a natural product. In this case, since waste eggshells are readily available and are causing environmental issues (eggshell waste attracts rats to landfills), it makes sense to use it rather than a mimic.

Another project was to use natural models to inspire a biomimetic building envelope that reduces energy usage, especially by optimizing thermoregulation (step 3). Being exposed to the architectural design world was a real mind-boggler. Why don’t architects understand my explanation of the aestivation mechanism of the African reed frog? How would they implement this? What is an adaptive thermal comfort model and what does heat extraction mean? How will the biomimetic building envelope save energy?
We are currently reshaping our manuscript so that it will speak to a broad range of readers, and clearly explain how we used our natural models as design inspiration. Hope to share it soon!

During my PhD I discovered the fascinating aspects of entrepreneurship. I learned to identify customers’ needs and do market research. If nobody wants or needs your (biomimicry) product, no need to invest so much time and money in developing it. I had the exciting experience of co-founding two startups, one biomimicry-related and one PhD-problem related:

Hedgemon is an R&D startup, which is using the cleverness of the design of hedgehog spines to develop a new cushioning material.

Jaswig designs, manufactures, and sells height-adjustable and sustainable standing desks, which alleviates your back/neck aches from sitting too many hours behind your computer.

natures-beauty-42Besides all the joy of being involved in a startup, I also experienced a lot of loss in personal productivity and team collaboration due to misunderstandings or lack of communication. But frustrations = opportunity (yes, I’ve developed a business mindset)! I’m currently on a mission to learn from nature how we can communicate more effectively. It will need more digging and testing in real-life business settings before reaching publishable outcomes, but in the meantime you can read my attained insights on my blog “How nature says it”.

One more month to synthesize all of this into a dissertation document… Almost there! I hope that by sharing my experiences, challenges, concerns and research results I can show how formal education facilitates the development and practical use of biomimicry. Bill, Emily and I are the first batch of graduating Biomimicry Fellows, with many more to come! Curious to see what they will work on and how their PhD track unrolls.

And I guess this is a goodbye to you, readers of Germinature. Hope to have sparked some new ideas or questions, and I’m always happy to keep the conversation going! Reach out to me: daphne{at}fecheyr{dot}be. Thanks for reading.

Biomimicry & Algorithms

What is programming and what are algorithms? Can we foster an interest in them for anyone who finds programming to be a black box? Can biomimicry help? These are the questions I’m playing around with these days. Can reference to nature take courses in logical thinking beyond typical lessons in sequences, If/Else statements and loops? . I watched The Secret Rules Of Modern Living: Algorithms(trailer) and The Code (trailer) on Netflix over the weekend, still have to finish the code, and I kept thinking ‘wow this is brilliant! I can do this!’ I also got to know about an online course on Teaching Physical Computing with Raspberry Pi through my sponsor TIES and going through it has been very interesting (Raspberry Pi is a mini, cheap computer, not a literal raspberry pie :D, inside joke!),. It led me to Scratch which helps young people learn programming.

Next, I have been thinking; Do I want to teach programming or algorithm development. The answer seems to be easy, because a way to keep someone engaged is to have results and programming is what gives algorithms an outcome. Yet, algorithms can be developed without any computer, while programs need to be written on a computer of some sort in a language (considering analog here as well). Also, it seems to me creating a lesson is different than what I want to do, which is produce a software/piece of a machine. For example, a biomimicry lesson could be similar to an exercise on learning about birds and nesting to come up with the algorithm they use. Instead of an abstract lesson, I want to deliver something students can touch and use hopefully without much outside help. That is not to say, my deliverable cannot involve students going out and experiencing nature while working on/with my product. However, my product needs to be a software and/or a hardware that is attractive, engaging by using nature’s life lessons to teach programming/algorithms to the user.

I can see how nature is brilliant for my task; it has millions of algorithms to teach and we have been learning them for quite a while in the computer science world. My goal is to bring those lessons  to the general public. At the end of The Secret Rules Of Modern Living: Algorithms movie, narrator Marcus du Sautoy mentions how our world wouldn’t function without the power of algorithms and I think that’s absolutely true! As we rely on them greatly, how can we increase everyone’s interest in them?

La Plata Armadillo (Tolypeutes matacus)

 

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Rebecca Eagle-Malone holds “Chaco” the La Plata Armadillo. Evening reception, NASA and OAI Biomimicry Summit.

Earlier this month, August 2016, I had the privilege of leading an evening reception for the NASA and OAI Biomimicry Summit in Cleveland, Ohio. (OAI = Ohio Aeronautical Institute). A group of 60 attendees gathered inside the Primates, Cats, and Aquatics Building of Cleveland Metroparks Zoo as we engaged in a discussion of Biomimicry in Your Backyard. I selected three common backyard critters to demonstrate how easy it is to find inspiration in the spaces around us every day: La Plata Armadillo, Eastern Box Turtle, and Children’s Python. This week’s blog will feature our one and only “Chaco” the La Plata Armadillo (Tolypeutes matacus).

As we’ve discussed before, biomimicry is accomplished by two possible methods: 1) Start with a question and look to nature for a solution, or 2) Start with an inspiring organism and discover what problems can be solved using that particular structure or behavior. Working in the zoo setting, I typically start with the latter. Whether I am preparing for our Biomimicry/Ecophysiology class within our Advanced Inquiry Program through Miami University of Ohio and Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, answering a question from one of our educators while preparing a program, or speaking at an event for Great Lakes Biomimicry, this is the case. I am given an animal and I start my research. My starting point is generally: What makes this organism unique? It is in this uniqueness that inspiration jumps out at you! I encourage all of you to try this any time you have a moment outdoors to think. It is really amazing what a person can dream up once the trigger is pulled. We will start at this point with our armadillo inspiration.

hairyArmadilo

Hairy Armadillo has a soft carapace. Photo courtesy of Smithsonian

What makes an armadillo unique? Particularly, the La Plata Armadillo?  I would play the Jeopardy music in the background, but I don’t think it will take you that long to come up with the answer: the carapace. The scutes are hard dermal bone with keratin—very similar to a tortoise shell. La Plata, also commonly called the 3-banded armadillo, has a shoulder plate and hip plate with dermal hinges to allow flexibility. This is the only species of armadillo that is able to roll into a complete ball, courtesy of a head plate and armored tail. The Hairy Armadillo (Chaetophractus vellerosus) contrastingly, has a soft outer shell.

Armadillo

Tolypeutes matacus is the only species that can roll into a complete ball. Photo courtesy of Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

The carapace offers several advantages. Most obviously, perhaps, is protection. The La Plata Armadillo is nearly impenetrable when he rolls into a ball. The only predator that could possibly open this shell needs to have opposable thumbs. However, even with this advantage, most predators would find the benefit (food) is not worth the cost (time) it takes to open.  It also offers fortification measures by pinching the opposition in its hinges.

 

Another advantage of the carapace for this dweller of arid environments is thermal regulation. While all armadillos live in regions with temperatures between 92-97°F, the La Plata Armadillo can survive even hotter climates. One might think the shell would keep heat trapped inside the body, but the dermal hinges serve as climate control, allowing for air flow between the hinges.

Lastly, all armadillos have this really cool ability to travel across water. How?! They can hold their breath for really long periods of time. This allows them to walk on the bottom of riverbeds and waterways. What if they don’t want to walk? Like other mammals, they can suck in air and float across the water! Nothing can stop these guys from getting to the other side!

So I ask … what does the armadillo inspire in you?

Reflections about my time in Akron

It’s been three weeks since I moved back to my familiar habitat in Ghent, Belgium, to finish my PhD remotely. From all places, my primary advisor’s lab relocated to The University of Ghent earlier this year.

I had spent the first 22 years of my life in the same city, in the same house, when I decided to pursue a PhD in Biomimicry. Since UAkron is the only university that offers a PhD degree in Biomimicry my decision to relocate there was easy. Two months later I jumped into a new chapter of my life, which has been an eye-opening adventure. Getting out of your comfort zone takes courage. Almost everything around you is new and different. In the 3.5 years I lived in Akron, I was exposed to so many new people, places, ideas, traditions, landscapes, recipes… Every day you can learn something new. Feeling like a total stranger at the start, it took curiosity and adaptation to make myself part of a new habitat. Continue reading

The Interdisciplinary and Collaborative Nature of Bioinspiration

This semester, most of the fellows are participating in a design course. Though I have been working with my corporate sponsor for almost a year at this point, it is interesting to utilize the biomimicry design process in an interdisciplinary group, with designers, engineers, and biologists working together to tackle problems. What I have personally noted from my experience thus far is the rapid ability of these teams to translate biological inspiration into innovative ideas. Because I do not have background in biology, searching for and understanding biological systems which fit my problems can be a bit taxing. I utilize the resources which are currently out there, and do not always find that for which I am looking. Sometimes I’ll find papers, but I will get lost in the details. Working as a team with biologists has been much different, in terms of being able to extract the lessons behind the natural systems, without having to sift through the many details, but also in terms of accessing a wealth of natural systems which I would not have been easily able to find on my own.

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Cognitive Challenges of Bioinspired Design…Among Business Practitioners

photo6503Last week, Dr. Ashok K. Goel of the Georgia Institute of Technology (GT) visited the University of Akron. Ashok delivered a talk as part of the Integrated Bioscience Seminar Series. The topic? Cognitive Challenges of Biologically Inspired Design. Given my personal interest in the biomimicry innovation process (reminder: the focus of my dissertation is creating a piece of a procedural template that could be readily implemented by R&D managers), I was absolutely enthralled. Like a tween at a Bieber concert, I was snapping photos and kneeling on my chair for a better view.  

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Ideas on Unifying Science

Uniting the sciences is not that trivial.

I’d argue physics has done a lot in terms of breaking down the barriers between the sciences. Each science has their own physics—certain equations of phenomenon that work for their own field.

So in a sense, I can imagine physics as the center of the sciences. Only because physics brings both numbers and theory (math only brings the numbers), and it’s the theory that makes it all make sense.

To give some context, consider all of the physics off-shoots of our central fields: physical chemistry, biomechanics, biophysics, geophysics, etc. Not to mention physics’ attempt at a theory of everything—which is really just a theory of the small (which if correct is technically everything).

But I’m not convinced physics is the best intersection.

I see the problem though stemming from the way we convey physics (not that it isn’t a great choice for an intersection of the sciences). We teach it as separate things, each phenomenon has its own set of equations and rules, though they can be derived from some starting principles (newton, thermodynamics). Ultimately, by building it up as separate ideas, with clearly different models, the unity is lost: how can they work together?

This brings me finally to Biomimicry.

Biology isn’t just a good resource for solutions, it also creates great examples of the separate concepts can work together.

Biology is the application of physics. There are too many organisms that utilize the many types of physics to accomplish a goal. In a sense I would bet that anything we teach in class could be found in an organism.

The point of this is to unify the sciences not through a theory of everything, but rather a unified subject of study. Such that when we learn about physics/chemistry/engineering/mechanics it’s in the context of biology.

Unification through a common application rather than a common equation.

I think this would be a good foundation for someone who is considering an interdisciplinary path; where things are seldom purely one thing.

New Education Fellow – Adam Pierce

Adam PierceThank you for taking the time to explore our blog! I am Adam Pierce. A Pacific Northwest transplant, I fell into Ohio because my wife had a unique opportunity to contribute to inventive education. Once here I was amazed at the innovation and scientific discovery focused in Ohio. Seeking to expand my own experience, I stumbled upon the opportunity to apply as an Integrated Bioscience doctoral student and as an Education Fellow to the Biomimicry program at The University of Akron and jumped at the chance. I will primarily be working with 5-8 grade students at the National Inventors Hall of Fame STEM school, helping to make curriculum which will then hopefully provide a foundation for Biomimicry education in the years to come.

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BiomimicryNYC Workshop for Educators

Continuing with the education theme from my past post, I’d like to highlight a great workshop I was able to participate in this summer, put on by BiomimicryNYC and sponsored by NYSERDA. At this Biomimicry Workshop for Educators, hosted by the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY, educators from all types of schools and grade levels came to learn how to integrate biomimicry into their own curriculum and lesson plans.

The teachers ranged from Kindergarten educators, up through the undergraduate teaching level (mainly for education majors). I’m continuously struck by how many people hear about biomimicry and then have this intense desire to learn about it. Even through this course, one teacher learned about and was subsequently sponsored by a parent to go through this workshop because he could see the value in bringing it to the school. Yet another teacher’s catalyst was her own child, learning about biomimicry through her. Learning about biomimicry and the workshop came from a number of different trajectories, but regardless of the start, we all came together to learn how to teach the next generation about this incredible new paradigm of thinking.

Through the workshop, we tried out and experimented with various established lesson plans, but expanded beyond scientific biomimetic applications, to delve into the fictional realm – letting kids use their imaginations, blended with biomimicry tools and knowledge, to come up with something completely unique, such as….Mantis Shrimp Man! This lesson let kids (in this case – us big kids) create our own super heroes taking inspiration from unique abilities of organisms and systems. We then drew the super heroes and shared them with the rest of the class. What a great way to combine biomimicry, science, art and design, and public speaking skills into one lesson – a truly biomimetic, cross-disciplinary designed lesson! Below are a few photos of the many activities we dove into.

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