Category: Interdisciplinary

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!

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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.

A Meadow of Inspiration

“Plants are amazing!” This is something I hear a lot from non-botanists. Of course, I know plants are awesome, but every time I turn around, I learn something new and exciting. This semester was no exception. Tasked with a project in my Biomimetic Design class, led by Dr. Petra Gruber, I walked into the meadow to find inspiration– literally.

On a very wet, cold, rainy day in October, I walked to a meadow within our field station property (Bath Nature Preserve, Bath Twp., Akron, Ohio) and found a section to investigate. Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) towering over my head, I decided to stop at 20 steps and set up a 1m x 1m plot to sample. October in a meadow doesn’t give you very much to identify, but goldenrod (Solidago spp.) and Indian grass (S. nutans) were plentiful among a few baby asters, Galium spp. (aka ‘Cleavers’ or ‘Bedstraw’), wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana),clumps of unidentifiable grass and moss. I measured heights of stems and area covered,  took the percent coverage to determine how much each species covered the plot,and took several picture views for record. After returning to campus, I created a hand-drawn schematic of the plot.

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Hand-drawn schematic of 1m x 1m meadow plot in Bath Nature Preserve. Oct. 2016

A few weeks later, I returned to the same plot. Apparently my methods of counting and direction are spot-on because my last step landed on a pen I had dropped on that rainy day a few weeks earlier! If you’ve ever done field work, you understand how amazing it is that I found a PEN in the middle of a meadow over 2 meters high! This time I was there to measure the ability of the meadow to hold a load. I admit, I didn’t think the stems would hold up… being so late in the year and being dried out. As usual, though, plants are amazing and surprised me yet again!

I decided to test the load by creating a 1m x 1m foam board that was sturdy, yet lightweight. I placed the board directly over the plot, placing flags on each corner. The flags allowed for a visual cue to observe movement of bot

3held-after

My husband and daughter gave me a hand in the field at Bath Nature Preserve. Three books really impacted the system. Notice how far the stems are bending, yet still not breaking! Amazing.

h plants and the board, as well as giving a reference point at which to measure the height of the board after each addition of weight. After the foam board was placed on top of the plants, I measured the height at each corner (flag) for the “initial” height. I added one heavy book and measured the height at each corner. Subsequently, I added increasing weight and measured the heights. At 3 books (6.7kg), the system (the meadow plot) could no longer hold the weight. Because this was the same plants were used over the entire experiment, I believe more weight can be held by the plants in true form.

 

So how does this happen? Plants are amazing. IMeadow roots.pngn the meadow, plants grow up to 10 feet below ground (roots) and above ground. You can imagine how secure this makes these cantilever beams! Here, the Indian grass and Goldenrod grew 1.5m to 2.5m above ground. The stems reached diameters of 2-5mm. You may wonder how the stems did not break when the weight was added. Galileo was the first to record these observations, noting that bending is resisted in the outer layers, not the inner stem as some might think. Several studies have investigated this design, including F.O. Bower (1930) who compared plant stems to concrete, saying, “Ordinary herbaceous plants are constructed on the same principle. The sclerotic strands correspond to the metal straps, the surroundin

stem

g parenchyma with its turgescent cells corresponds mechanically to the concrete.” Equisetum (Horsetail) is another champion plant for many reasons, but here, in this context, it’s a biomechanic superstar.  “The hollow stem of Equisetum giganteum owes its mechanical stability to an outer ring of strengthening tissue, which provides stiffness and strength in the longitudinal direction, but also to an inner lining of turgid parenchyma, which lends resistance to local buckling. With a height >2.5 m isolated stems are mechanically unstable. However, in dense stands individual stems support each other by interlacing with their side branches, the typical growth habit of semi-self-supporters.” (Spatz, Kohler, Speck 1998). Again, plants are amazing.

 

After doing some mathematical calculations (very much estimated

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The Lone Bloomer. The best-looking Goldenrod in the whole place puts out a flower for us!

in this case because of the imprecise nature of this ‘experiment’), it is expected that a single Goldenrod stem can support >118% of its biomass! Now, we’re not talking about the strength of steel or lead, but we can see that plants offer us new possibilities when we are designing or constructing new things! Imagine a support feature that is hollow inside and allows for storage in the “stem” as well has having the strength to support weight. Think on a smaller scale: imagine a space in which a stiff, lightweight outer covering is needed to secure something. Imagine the many possibilities that plants offer us to grow using Life’s Principles.

 

 

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Graphical representation of the meadow plot using InDesign. I’m still learning how to use this new software and have also created a “worm’s eye view” to show a different perspective. Yellow stems are the goldenrod, the purple and lavender stems are Indian grass (single stems and clumps).

 

Fossil Doesn’t Equal Failure

Hi all, Thanks again for tuning in. I recently had the opportunity to speak at the first annual national biomimicry forum and education summit. The following is a transcript of the talk I gave including some of the associated imagery. Hope you all enjoy Fossil Doesn’t Equal Failure: Continue reading

My research crowdfunding experience

Hi GermiNature readers,

maxresdefaultI was hoping that by now I would be able to share the videos from our TEDxUniversityofAkron Salon event (April 5th, 2016) with you. However, the videos are not ready yet. So I’m going to tell you a little bit about my research crowdfunding experience that happened about the same time. Continue reading

Product Design using Biomimicry in a nutshell!

Two weeks to finishing my first academic year, I’m feeling inspired to talk about our course on developing a product using biomimicry; Michael introduced it here. For this course, we worked with students from the Cleveland Institute of Art and Nottingham Spirk. Nottingham Spirk (NS) gave us the problem and some deadlines. Milestones we had were for coming up with areas we’d like to target, developing the concepts, and finally refining our product designs.
What is the first step to go from biology to a product or vice versa? It was a bit messy for me, considering I am also still learning about many biological organisms, but I am pleased with our results and the progress we made.
First, we worked on our target audience, drawing mind maps of stakeholders and key opportunities. We divided into subgroups based on our interest in particular key opportunity areas. There was only one condition: having almost an equal number of Biomimicry Fellows from University of Akron biomimicry and designers from the Cleveland Institute of Art on every team.
And then we started… Not sure how to go about it, we looked at current products, specific issues within our key opportunity area,  as well as asknature.org, other books and papers on animal’s adaptaptions. By end of February, we were ready to give a report to NS about the issues we were targeting and organisms that could potentially help us and got their feedback.
Our next step was to develop concepts by end of March. Here, we needed to read more and actually think of a specific problem and solution. I would say, while researching current market, it was not difficult to see where we can introduce new products and what’s missing. The more challenging part was abstracting ideas from biology. We had a format to follow similar to asknature.org: it included writing first the abstracted function, then the strategy the model organism uses and finally extracting design principles. This time NS were more specific on which ideas they were interested in having us pursue and which they were not. Then it was time to form new groups based on the latest product ideas we were moving forward with. Now, for our final work, my team focused on one specific product and our concept looked to many organisms (from ducks to rabbits) for inspiration. Our final report is today. yay!
Couple of things I learned:
– It was wonderful to work in groups of various specialties (mine included industrial designer, polymer scientist, product designer and me)

– Drawing/talking about ideas helped in better grasping the biological function.

– When there is no actual structure to follow, the flexibility lends to creativity.

– Having many groups, it was interesting to see what each team has come up with and inspirations are endless.

– Designers are great in making an idea come alive and look appealing!

– There are many complicated texts in biology for non-biologists, but, knowing what function you’d like to learn about makes it much easier to research and pictures do speak 1000 words.

– I’m more excited today than when I joined the biomimicry degree.

Till next time, Happy Biomimicking!

Merging Art, Design, and Science in Research

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As the last couple of my blog posts have given good examples of research projects and works that fuse art, design, and science, I thought it would be worth dedicating a short post to explain the similarities between the worlds, reveal what research could look like when merging them, and give a bio-inspired example.

Continue reading