FIT has won the first Biodesign Challenge (BDC), a competition in which teams of students from nine leading U.S. colleges and universities created projects that envision future applications of biotechnology. Themes for the projects included architecture, water, food, materials, energy, medicine, and others areas where biological design could make a dramatic difference. The FIT team used novel growing techniques to develop a yarn out of algae and fungi, and used it to model an innovative production method for a sustainable alternative to conventional textiles. As part of their presentation, they showed a small T-shirt they hand-knit from the yarn.
The prize was announced after the projects were presented at a June 23 event at the Museum of Modern Art and judged by 13 leaders in bio technology, design, and education. The FIT team is comprised of three students from the Fashion Design program’s knitwear specialization—Tessa Callaghan ’16, Gian Cui ’17, and Aleksandra Gosiewski ’17—and Aaron Nesser, who studies at Pratt Institute.
A number of the schools that the FIT team bested—including University of Pennsylvania, New York University, Carnegie Mellon University, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute—are renowned for their science programs, while the remaining competing schools―the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Maryland Institute College of Art and Southern California Institute of Architecture―are known for their creative capabilities.
For their winning project, FIT’s team created a material out of alginate (algae) and chitosan (fungi). Rather than looking at this material solely as a molecular structure, they examined it through a fashion designer’s lens. As a result, they extruded it from a syringe as a filament and knitted this “yarn” into fabric. The resulting textile, though not ready for production, represents a step toward a closed-loop life-cycle system for fashion, as the fabric is not only biodegradable but could be used as a nutrient for growing more materials.
The team began with observations about the wastefulness of fashion: “It’s the second most polluting industry,” they noted in their presentation. They then spent months experimenting with different formulas of the biomaterial, curious to see how much it would stretch. They tested an early version of the knitted filament in FIT’s textile testing labs, where they discovered, to their surprise, that it stretched 70 percent beyond its original length. They also customized a 3D printer to make a mesh version, which stretched 50 percent.
The FIT team’s trophy was the Glass Microbe, a fist-sized translucent artwork by U.K. artist Luke Jerram that symbolizes the intersection of art, design, and biology. Each year, the piece will be passed to the next winner. The BDC was created by Dan Grushkin, a writer and the founder of GenSpace, a nonprofit that promotes education in molecular biology for both children and adults. At the MoMA event, keynote speakers included Paola Antonelli, the museum’s senior curator of Architecture and Design, and Suzanne Lee, creative director of Modern Meadow and founder of Biofabricate.
FIT faculty members Theanne Schiros, assistant professor, who teaches physics, chemistry, and sustainability, and Asta Skocir, associate professor, Fashion Design, served as mentors. Carmita Sanchez-Fong, associate professor, Interior Design, and Sasha Wright, assistant professor, Biology and Ecology, received an interdisciplinary grant from the School of Art and Design to develop a curriculum of readings and to bring bioethics and biomaterials experts to campus. Sass Brown, acting associate dean of the School of Art and Design, brought the BDC to the college and promoted the opportunity to students. C.J. Yeh, professor, Communication Design, helped the team polish their presentation skills.
Find out more at biodesignchallenge.org.