FIT Grows a Pair of Baby Shoes

baby shoeIf you had told me when I first arrived at FIT—almost 20 years ago—that during my tenure, FIT students will be creating their own color dyes from plants they grow on our terraces, developing knitting yarn from fungi, and “growing” baby shoes from plant materials, I would certainly have accused you of indulging in too much science fiction. Yet here we are having achieved all three and becoming a growing institutional presence in that elevated realm of innovation where design, science, and technology converge.

It was just a year ago that FIT took first place in the first annual Biodesign Challenge, an international competition created by a group of leading scientists, designers, and educators. Its goal is to encourage students to explore the potential of biological design to make a difference in our environment. I have been bragging about the infant tee-shirt our team of fashion design students created from algae ever since. While we didn’t take home a trophy this year, our team was one of only 20—out of 400 who submitted projects from 22 universities throughout the world—selected to present at the competition Summit this summer.

Using all natural processes and materials, our three students—Arianna Wong, a fashion business management major, and Danielle Esposito and Dylon Shepelsky, both Textile Development Marketing majors—“grew” a pair of baby shoes from plant material in just eight weeks.

Guided by Science and Mathematics Professor Theanne Schiros and Textile/Surface Design Professor Susanne Goetz , with assistance from Accessories Design Professor Ann Markia Veploegh Chase, the team employed a remarkable mix of cutting-edge science and old-world technology.

team members

First, I am told, they used bacteria, yeast, and mycelium to transform wood-shop waste into a very organic “leather.” Second, they turned to Native-American tanning and preservation techniques to make the shoes water-repellent and flame-retardant. Pineapple fiber was blended into a thread that team members used to stitch the pieces together. Oh, and as though that weren’t enough, the team also infused plant seeds into the material itself so that, upon reaching the end of their useful lives, the shoes can be planted in the ground to grow a batch of carrots.

Twenty years ago, it would not have occurred to me that one of our business students might be part of a team designing and developing a shoe. That kind of interdisciplinary participation, while not science fiction, was still on the distant horizon. Today, one of my mantras is the strength of interdisciplinary activity to fuel innovation, and I think that this amazing biological shoe, developed by an interdisciplinary team of students, advised by faculty from science and design, is proof. I congratulate the students and their advisors for their outstanding effort. Their selection into the narrow circle of competitors in the Biodesign Challenge underscores the numerous ways that FIT, as Professor Schiros so aptly put it, is actively working to dissolve the boundaries between art and science.

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Keeping FIT Cybersafe

It is not if, but when.

The “it” I am referring to is a malicious cyberattack on FIT’s digital infrastructure—one that does serious damage. That is the prediction of Walter Kerner, our acting Chief Information Security Officer, and it’s one we should take seriously given the most recent worldwide ransomware attack.

Walter came to us a little more than a year ago from a career protecting digital assets and infrastructure in the corporate world. He is FIT’s first chief information security officer. He and Greg Fittinghoff, our acting vice president for Information Technology, as well as everyone on the IT for FIT team, are working diligently to roll out an Information Technology Strategic Plan—an ambitious and forward-looking initiative to improve and reinforce FIT’s cybersecurity for today and for the future. This initiative includes our Cybersafe website, newsflashes on cybersecurity matters, and a wide range of tech awareness activities and training for everyone on campus.

While it is reassuring to know that our IT operation is aggressively plotting protective procedures, Walter has made it clear that FIT is nevertheless no more or less a target than any other institution, and I’m sure it keeps him on high alert.

“We need to get the idea across that someone, somewhere would be only too happy to attack us, for any number of reasons, even to use FIT as a conduit to some other party,” he told me. “This is a real and present danger.”

Human error is a big part of most cyber-crime. Without thinking, we click on unknown links, open messages from unknown parties or get careless with our passwords. And this is true both for older “adapters” and for young people who are “digital natives.”

So a big part of the Cybersafe effort is aimed at teaching us how to protect our information and reduce the risk of attack. And I am glad to report that FIT students—those digital natives—are getting an opportunity to aid in that process.

Walter is working with Loretta Volpe, associate chairperson and professor in the Advertising & Marketing Communication Department, to get students’ help in spreading the Cybersafe message to their peers. This fall, her students will be asked to develop ideas for campus-wide information security awareness campaigns aimed specifically at the student body. One campaign will focus on general cyber awareness and another on cyber bullying—an unfortunate reality for more and more college students. The most effective ideas will be adopted and implemented.

Our students always amaze me with all that they accomplish so I look forward to seeing the Cybersafe campaign they create. And as always, I am grateful that so many members of the community are working to keep the college as safe as possible from the inevitable cyberattacks that keep Walter and our IT for FIT team up at night.

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Fair Highlights Student Research

Every time I turn around, it seems, I learn about another exciting project taking place here on campus. With such a dynamic faculty and resourceful student body, it should not surprise me. One good example is the Presidential Scholars Research Fair which took place in early March. The reason I found it so exciting, and worth blogging about, was that it exemplifies so many of our strategic goals and ambitions: it’s all about undergraduate participation in research, interdisciplinary exploration and innovation; it promotes the campus-wide culture of research that we seek, and it certainly encourages greater academic and co-curricular intellectual engagement for our students.

The Fair was inspired by Professor Yasmin Celik Levine, the director of the Presidential Scholars Program. She wanted to set the bar higher for her honors students—and for FIT—by challenging them to explore topics of their own choosing and to learn to use a range of research methods that would create new knowledge about or perspectives on these topics. A tall order. Together with Brian Fallon, our Writing Center director, she developed the Presidential Scholars Senior Seminar, a new course, that required students to produce a capstone project—a 25 page thesis or creative project—on a topic of personal, social, cultural, political, or scholarly interest, along with a presentation of their findings. In addition to Dr. Fallon, the course was taught by Professors Rebecca Bauman and Richard Turnbull.

Initially not every student was thrilled with this new mandatory course. Not only were they being asked to do original research (often from primary sources), but for those not developing a creative project, they also were required to write a 25 page paper, significantly longer than the kind of writing they typically are assigned at FIT, and a prospect that some found to be “scary.”

The Fair was the culmination of the course. It was arranged like a scholarly conference with oral presentations as well as a showcase for all of the students work. An evening event that included dinner, it took place in the Great Hall and made use of the adjacent seminar rooms for concurrent presentations. About 180 people attended.

The students more than rose to the challenge. They tackled a wide array of diverse topics. Here are some of the tempting titles:

  • Elite Class Portrayals of Rural, White America
  • The Inauthenticity of the Personal Brand
  • Not Sorry: Analyzing the Rise of Anger, Power, and Black Womanhood through Beyonce’s “Lemonade” Lens
  • Psycho: The Evolution of Stigma around Mental Illness
  • Media Representation of Feminism with a Focus on TV Commercials
  • How to Find the Most Cost-Effective Place to Live in the Big Apple
  • The Wounds May Heal, but the Scars Remain Forever: The Comfort Women
  • Taming the Wild, Wild Web: Ethics and the World of Hacktivism

Among the fascinating creative projects on display were photos on for a topic called “Inside Anxiety” and a coffee table and coffee table book created by an interior design student, all inspired by an engraving by the 16th century artist Albrecht Durer on the theme of melancholia.

Among the attendees were Presidential Scholars in their junior year getting a taste of what awaits them next year. I hope they are excited by it. I certainly am!

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FIT Gala: Honoring Terry Lundren

About 1000 high-spirited people came together at the Marriott Marquis last week to help FIT honor Terry Lundgren, retiring CEO of Macy’s. It was our annual gala, and we shared it—and the $4.5 million in proceeds—with Terry’s alma mater, the University of Arizona.

Terry is a legendary leader in the world of retail, and well deserved praise was lavished on him, either on video or in person, from the likes of former Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Tom Brady, Sean Combs, Ralph Lauren, Anna Wintour, and Michael Kors.

It was also Terry’s 65th birthday and at the very end of the evening, celebrated chef Daniel Boulud presented him a cake in the form of a stack of golf balls while emcee Ryan Seacrest led the crowd in a hearty chorus of “Happy Birthday.” It was a happy evening, as I think you can see from these photos.

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Wouldn’t It Be Fun…

I often talk about The Museum at FIT as a “crown jewel” on the FIT campus and for good reason. The exhibits mounted there are often groundbreaking—as well as breathtaking—and always erudite. The museum’s curators, under the leadership of its director Dr. Valerie Steele, are exceptional in their knowledge of fashion history and in their understanding of the role fashion plays in global cultures. The exhibits they prepare are grounded in solid scholarship and invariably offer unexpected and fresh perspectives. So when I attend an exhibit or a related symposium, I always learn something new. But as I wander through the exhibits, sometimes a little voice inside my head says, “Wouldn’t it be fun to have this…of just imagine wearing that….” Even when the garments are from another era, they are often so beautiful and well-constructed that they simply speak to me. There are two shows up now: Black Fashion Designers and Paris Refashioned, and here are some of the items I would be thrilled to own:

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