Tagged: biomimicry

Who doesn’t love going to a FAB conference!?

Last week was Spring break and we had this great opportunity of going and presenting in digiFAB conference in Boston about Biomimicry through one of my Sponsors TIES! Lots happened and I was excited to meet some great people in the field and had butterflies about my own talk. My excitement was doubled and butterflies gone with keynote speaker, Sherry Lassiter director of Fab Foundation, You can see her in picture below talking about different movements within Fab Foundation as well as the Fab network. IMG_8663

Dale Dougherty, then talked about Maker movements, I have been following Dale’s maker group (he runs the Make: which you can subscribe to) and was thrilled when he talked about  “Autonomous Boat [that] Went from California to Hawaii and Beyond”. I read about this project when first published in Make: and was happy that the boat had been picked up by a ship in New Zealand and was in display there.

The 2 day conference was packed by amazing talks, I like to shortly go through few of them.

FAB City A 40 year goal from Barcelona to empower citizens to be creators of their own city; “locally self-sufficient and globally connected”. For me, it seemed as a society that doesn’t need a centralized governing body, but where citizens create materials based on their needs, recycle when possible and are connected to many more cities around the globe.

FAB Cities

Tomas Diaz from FABCity also talked about the model and plans they have to reach this goal in Barcelona. he talked about POBLENOU where its supported by local and international community to become a FAB city.


Rachel Ignotofsky; Women in Science , and the importance of design and arts in our life, how arts influences our perceptions and why is it important to use it in our learning kits.

3D printes, bluedragon made with business in mind, where you can print 4 colors in one product, you can mix different colors into one or just use one at a time: FIREPRINT. If anyone wants to put money together to get one, I am in! Check out their case studies, from combating Zika to cosplay, you can do all!

Second day  was nothing short of amazing talks as well, we first heard from Neil Gershenfeld, Director, MIT Center for Bits and Atoms, of his work on developing tools/processes for FABLAB, I did not see it coming where he talked about Nature! In below picture he was explaining how creating modules is similar to protein formation in our body. Neil

He also talked about how we are moving to Ubiquitous and with these changes, how his lab is working on developing the tools, materials, to functional part.


And one of my favorites; Global Humanitarian Lab, talk by David Ott, Co-founder, Where they aim to bring FABKits (costing around < $10k) to refugee camps. David talked about what would be in the FABKits and how everything needs to be packed into container that could be transferred by 1 or 2 person. He talked about limitations, needs and potentials of these labs. He talked about makers/ people who need the opportunities we easily can access in our cities.


There was many more talks which I highly recommend attending. This year, there was an addition of having workshops and we had ours on Biomimicry in Artisan’s Asylum in Somerville. Another place to put in your places to go!

So What did we talk about! We talked on first day about Spiders and Ornilux, Tardigrades, Spikemoss and Stabilitech/Biomateria and How they relate to maker group! As we grow in FAB network and as we move toward FAB cities, Can we benefit from nature’s stories? Can we learn from 3.8 billion years of lessons? Our hope is to learn and make more sustainable decisions. Either in creating new FAB equipments, or materials used. We see a movement that will grow potentially in years to come and we want to instill biomimicry thinking in its foundation!

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La Plata Armadillo (Tolypeutes matacus)



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.


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.


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?

Brains, Brains, Brains…

“If the brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple we couldn’t.” Lyall Watson

Summer time! For me it means working on bio-inspired algorithms, one in particular I’ve been spending some time on is Artificial Neural Networking (ANN). This had me asking my sister (who is working on her PhD in neuroscience) about how synapses, pathways, etc. work. This post will be on how ANN was inspired and some of the materials I found interesting on it. Let’s start with the obsession with neural network and why it matters? Machines do complicated mathematical calculations in a matter of seconds, yet they have difficulty performing some easy tasks such as recognizing faces, understanding and speaking in local languages, passing theTurning test. OK, let’s compare machines to our brain: A single transistor in your home computer is quite fast; only limited by speed of light and the physical distance to propagate a signal. A signal(Ions) in the neuron, on the other hand, propagates on a fraction of the speed (Flake, 1999). This begs the question, which is better? A good comparison can be found here. One main fact is that our brain makes use of a massive parallelism; it’s this massive interaction between axons and dendrites that contribute to how our brain works. Many argue that the comparison to computers is not very useful as they work differently from each other. Can we make a digital reconstruction of human brain? I follow Blue Brain project for this. Hence, as you can guess ANN algorithm is a simple imitation of how our neurons work. It works by feed forward and back propagations to learn patterns. Originally proposed as McCulloch-Putts neuron in the 1940s and 1980s by invention of Hopfield-Tank feedback neuron network. The 1960s had an good optimistic start on neural networks with the work of Frank Rosenblatt’s perceptron (a pattern classification device). However, by 1969 there was a decline in this research and publication of Perceptrons by Marvin Minsky and Seymour Papert caused it to almost die off. Minsky and Papert showed how a single perceptron was insufficient with any learning algorithm by giving it mathematical proofs. It took a while and many independent works till the value of Neural Networking came to light again. One main contribution is the two-volume book titled Parallel Distributed Processing by James L. McClelland and David E. Rumelhart and their collaborators. In this work, they changed the proposed unit step function proposed to a smooth sigmoid function and added a backward error signal propagation using weights of some hidden neurons called back propagation (Flake, 1999). Reading through chapter 20 of Parallel Distributed Processing written by F. Crick and C. Asanuma, I read about physiology and anatomy of the cerebral cortex. It shows different neural profiles.

Screen Shot 2016-07-24 at 11.35.30 AM(McClelland, 1989)

It talks about different layers in the cortex such as the superficial, upper, middle, and deep layer, axons, synapses, neurotransmitters. The more I read, the more I come to appreciate the complexity of our brain and wonder about the simplicity of Artificial Neural Network algorithms, and can’t help but feel amazed by what Blue Brain Project is aiming to do.

Like a house-cat exploring its environment, lets dive into narrow unexplored places…


Flake, G. W. The computational beauty of nature, 1999

McClelland, J. L. Rumelhart, D. E. Parallel distributed processing, Volume 2. Psychological and biological models, 1989

5 Nature Lessons About Being an Entrepreneur

Last week I had the pleasure to submerge myself in the rainy, flat, yet beautiful landscapes of the Netherlands.

Dunes of Loon and Drunen National Park, Netherlands

Together with about 25 others we spend a week to learn more about how Biomimicry Thinking can be applied to Social Innovation, a workshop given by Toby Herzlich and Dayna Baumeister. My personal interest in entrepreneurship made me question: “What can we learn from nature about being an entrepreneur?”

Yes, nature has entrepreneurs too, they are called pioneer species. Fireweed, a pink flower that appears as first after a huge forest fire, is one example. They are the species that are the first colonizers of harsh environments and are the drivers for ecological successions that ultimately lead to a more biodiverse and stable ecosystem.

1. You should not strive for a perfectly balanced Work/Life

Almost daily a new article appears in which tips are exposed to obtain a healthy work/life balance. Well, if we follow nature’s advice, we could keep trying to find it, but in nature there is no such thing as a “balanced” state. Although the overall appearance might seem in balance, the truth is that this is the result of a dynamic non-equilibrium or a constant flow of states to come as close as possible to equilibrium. One of the main reasons: (natural) disturbances will occur, no matter how hard you try to avoid them.

So, what is the best way to cope with this “stress” of having to deal with (unexpected) disturbances that throw you in unbalance? One is most resilient when being a “generalist” rather than a “specialist”; or in other words: don’t try to be extremely good at one specific thing.

Translating this to ourselves: If work becomes so dominant that you develop your personal skills almost only in your field of work (e.g. becoming extremely productive at managing your work, or being an uber smart coder — usually “hard” skills), you will have a very hard time to enjoy your non-work life (e.g. spending a relax time with your family — usually “soft” skills). Nature’s advice is to develop both your hard and soft skills so that you more easily can adapt to either your work-self or your life-self.

By the way: just the fact that we call them “work” and “life” is already a sign that something is totally wrong. You should be alive at work.

2. As a pioneer you usually grow fast and die young

Perhaps the most shocking news from nature: as a pioneer you only have a very temporary role to play. You are the one to appear as first since you are able to withstand those harsh conditions that others can’t. You can withstand the hard winds, the low nutritious soil, or the high currents. Even better, you thrive in them, making you grow fast and reproduce in high amounts. Together with your peers of pioneers you will change the conditions of your environment, you are making them more accessible for others to come and stay. But as soon as they have arrived, your role is to leave space for them, and find a new, underdeveloped area.

Seems like there is a good reason why you see so many serial entrepreneurs. If you are good at seeing new business opportunities and making them viable, perhaps your role should be just that. Why stay at one place and try to compete with the next generation (e.g. managers, CEO’s)? Can you accept that others are better at growing your business idea?
If so, you might have found your best talent and will enjoy to plant many new seeds and let them be grown by others.

3. Your pioneering role is to create conditions for the next generation

As a pioneer you are the first to colonize, but you are not there to stay. Being able to thrive in harsh conditions your job is to fix the sand or soil, to make nutrients more accessible, to enrich the soil, to create shelters from hard winds, etc. Suddenly other species will find out that the harsh conditions changed, and became viable to them. They will start settling and as they are better in other things than you, for example they need less resources or they are better at making friends (called mutualistic relationships in nature), they will take over. The end stage of ecological successions is a stable, biodiverse ecosystem, like the redwood forest and coral reefs.
Change in nature is accepted as a good thing.

4. You have two different ways to impact your environment

Apparently there are two ways a pioneer can change its environment:
i) change the environment directly; e.g. a beaver that builds dams will cause changes in the river flow,
ii) change itself, which indirectly affects the environment; e.g. coral needs CO2 to grow, taking it from the sea water thus creating a CO2-poor environment around the corals.

How can we apply this to ourselves?
As an entrepreneur you can introduce a new product into the world, which creates an entire new market. Think cars, mobile industry, and computers.
Or you can change yourself, affecting your environment. Examples that come to mind are: Not believing that the world is flat, literally throw our world upside-down. Or the fact that industry is now becoming more and more circular thanks to those thought-leaders that couldn’t accept our linear thinking and realized that “waste” doesn’t exist.

In both cases, what you are doing is preparing the environment to attract followers that usually will take over and be the ones to make the actual long-lasting change. If your startup doesn’t make it into a real company, that doesn’t mean you failed. On the contrary: you set a new stage for others that are perhaps better at running a big company, but you sure made a difference!

5. You should know what kind of messages you are sending and to whom

You come home after a long day, are hangry and your partner is in the sofa watching a TV show. You mumble to yourself “pfff why haven’t you made dinner yet!” and start cooking with a grumpy face. After 10 mins you are so angry and yell, “HEY, I’m home! Why haven’t you made dinner yet? I’m starving!”. Your partner stands up from the sofa, and says: “I made dinner for us, it’s in the oven and the table is set outside.”

Familiar? What happens is that you are sending messages that aren’t perceived by the other. Although you might think your partner heard you mumbling, he probably hasn’t. As he is watching an interesting TV show he didn’t even noticed that you were so hungry. He already knew dinner would be ready in 15 min but didn’t realize he should have told you.

There are many great examples in nature where a specific message is perfectly aligned between the sender and the receiver. Flowers not only send out a yummy smell to attract bees, they also have a beautiful UV pattern that shows them the way to their nectar. We as humans don’t see UV so these patterns/message would be totally useless if it were to guide us.

Next time your message isn’t being acted upon, ask yourself: “Who is my receiver, and which message is the most clear for them to understand what I need?”

Further Readings — Inspiring books

  1. The Nature of Business: Redesigning for Resilience — Giles Hutchins
  2. Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature — Janine Benyus
  3. Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World— Brian Walker PhD
  4. Business Ecology: Giving your Organization the Natural Edge — Joseph M Abe
  5. All I Need To Know About Business, I Learned From a Duck — Tom Porter


This post was originally posted on Medium.com

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!

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

Bill’s research update #2

A greenbottle blue tarantula (C. cyaneopubescens) on a branch. Despite of its name, saturated, bright green color rarely occurs in tarantulas. Credit: Michael Kern/www.thegardensofeden.org

Hi, Germinature readers! It’s been over a year since my last research update. Looks like it’s about time to do another one to let you know what happened in 2015 and also to give you a sneak peak of what’s in the pipeline for 2016. Continue reading

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.


We’ve done much damage to our planet. We’ve cut down trees. We’ve used pesticide and fertilizer chemicals on our soil and plants. The good news is this: the planet was designed to heal itself. To first begin, we need to help. I believe we can use bioremediation to fix some of the environmental problems we have created and as a preventative mediation for future issues. Continue reading