FIT Team Wins, Again

One of the great pleasures of my job is that I get a first-hand view of the always-inspiring and innovative work FIT faculty and students create here on a regular basis. But sometimes, even I am surprised and taken aback by the ingenious, cutting-edge projects our researchers undertake. And it is very gratifying to me when this work earns the public attention it so richly deserves.

So I am delighted that FIT’s “AlgiKnit” research team has won $25,000 from National Geographic’s “Chasing Genius” contest, which aims to promote “game-changing ideas around the issues of global health, world hunger, and environmental sustainability.”

Just last year, I wrote about the team’s earlier project, “Bioesters,” which had then taken home the top award in the first annual BioDesign Challenge. They won for “growing” a flexible yarn from algae—and used it to knit a baby’s tee shirt. The latest AlgiKnit project is refining and perfecting this algae-based yarn.

The NatGeo contest winners, announced in September, included four categories — Sustainable Planet, Global Health, Feeding 9 Billion, and People’s Choice. Winners were picked from more than 2,800 applicants.

FIT’s AlgiKnit team won the Sustainable Planet category for its “sustainable, bio-based textile alternatives into the 21st Century footwear and apparel industries.”

The small team—five people in all—includes Asta Skocir, associate professor in Fashion Design, and Theanne Schiros, an assistant professor who teaches physics, chemistry, and sustainability. Aleksandra Gosiewski and Tessa Callahan, both recent FIT graduates, are team members as well. Each took the knitwear specialization in the Fashion Design program, though they are now working in industry. Aaron Nesser, another team member, is now in the master’s degree program in industrial design at the Pratt Institute.

So, not only is AlgiKnit a ground-breaking and award-winning project that merges design and science—a growing phenomenon on campus—it also is another example of the kinds of innovative, real-world solutions to real-world problems that FIT is capable of producing.

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A Book Party with the Presidential Scholars

book: Behold the DreamersI was sorry to miss Imbolo Mbue when she came to campus recently. Ms. Mbue is the author of the prize-winning novel, Behold the Dreamer, and she was here a few weeks after her book was the subject of discussion at a large book “party”—the year’s opening event for the college’s Presidential Scholars. I was at that party, one of more than 20 professors and administrators hosting a table of students over dinner. For 15 years, the Presidential Scholars program has opened the academic year with this “common read” event—a wonderful way to break the ice for the students, and, at the same time, engage in what we hope will be a lively, intellectually challenging discussion.

I had heard about this event for many years but this was the first time I was a participant—and I was eager to be there. I wondered about a variety of things: what
would be the quality of the dialogue…of the students’ literary interpretation…their critical thinking? What aspect of this book, rich with story lines, would ignite agreement or disagreement or the most interesting analyses? What about plot development…or the characters…would they find them believable? How would they deal with the book’s ambiguities? Of course, I wondered, too, whether my presence as president of the college might inhibit them in any way.

Altogether, there were 180 students participating. My table of seven, like almost all, was all-female—not a surprise when you consider that 85 percent of our student population is female. From what other hosts told me,it was otherwise a decidedly diverse group in terms of majors, economic status, ethnicity and class—we had students ranging from first year to senior. Questions had already been assigned to the students, which may have encouraged them to think more deeply about the book. At one table, I hear, each student seemed to focus exclusively on the one question assigned to her and the conversation was not as free-flowing as one might hope. That did not happen at my table. Moreover, I can say without question that there were some very impressive analytic thinkers at my table—most of whom, I believe, were not at all inhibited by me. The issue that dominated at my table was the moral dilemma that the book’s male protagonist, an immigrant from Cameroon, faced when confronted with a difficult demand by his boss’ wife—and that led to a probing, thoughtful discussion. Other aspects of the book dominated at other tables: the disillusionment with the American dream; gender issues raised by the relationship between the protagonist and his wife. (This issue gained little traction at my table, which I found puzzling.) One table got into a heated discussion about gentrification, and particularly the gentrification of Harlem where the protagonist lived, which they felt was ignored by the author.

What I heard most often, however, was the way in which our Presidential Scholars, some of whom are immigrants or children of immigrants, identified with this couple from Cameroon—and how poignant it was that they had read this book, and were having this discussion, in the shadow of President Trump’s announcement that he was
ending the program that had protected the “Dreamers,” the children of undocumented immigrants.

The Great Hall was alive with talk that evening—more so, said one professor, than other years, at least in his experience. There were even rumblings of social activism prompted by the Trump announcement. Another host said she was chagrined by how little detail she remembered compared to her students, who conducted what she called a rigorously intellectual and provocative dialogue. Indeed, I was impressed by the interpretive skills, the critical thinking, demonstrated by the students at my table. It would have been fascinating if Ms. Mbue had been with us that evening, hopping from table to table, to ask her own questions and to respond to the students’ perceptions.

As it happens, an article appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education just the other day called “The Essential English Department”—an ardent defense of English as an academic discipline. In it, the author wrote that the best thing undergraduates can gain from literature is “a sense of the deep rich empowering pleasure of the literary experience, a sense that might keep them returning to the well for the rest of their lives.” Well, as a career college, FIT does not offer subjects like English as majors (although it is one of our popular liberal arts minors). Still, I suspect that for this group of undergraduates—no matter how career-focused—the pleasure of literature already has a foothold in their lives. Personally, I took great pleasure in this “book party,” a gratifying display of student excellence at FIT and a wonderful way to launch the new academic year.

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Thom Browne Honored at Couture Council Luncheon

What a pleasure it was to honor Thom Browne at our annual Couture Council luncheon earlier this month. The designer, whose innovative collections for men and women have been universally celebrated by his peers, accepted the Artistry of Fashion award with great humility from his long-time friend, Whoopi Goldberg. “This man brings joy,” she said—and she was right.

Across the David Koch Theater, where the luncheon was held, 500 people smiled broadly throughout the ceremony, both touched and charmed by Mr. Browne. It helped, of course, that his Hector handbag—a witty take on his beloved dachshund—perched on a podium nearby. Unlike the tailored Browne outfits so many admirers, male and female, wore that afternoon, Ms. Goldberg was dressed in a large bold and brilliantly colored robe, also designed by Thom Browne.

This year’s luncheon raised $943,000, the second highest grossing luncheon in our 12-year history, a tribute to the hard work of the Couture Council, its treasured beneficiary, the Museum at FIT, and of course to Thom Browne.

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Reflecting on Charlottesville…and FIT

I am something of an idealist when it comes to educational institutions. After all these years, I think of them still as the pathway to knowledge and reason, wisdom and understanding, and lives transformed, all for the better. And so I believe that those of us who have the privilege of living and working in an educational institution have a special obligation to protect, as best we can, our democracy and the free and open society we cherish. The malevolence, ignorance and egregious behavior recently on display in Charlottesville must be repudiated. That is not only the job of our leaders, it is our job as well. FIT is a remarkably diverse community. Our offices, corridors and classrooms are filled with people of every race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity– -not to mention geographic origin. Each one of us must be made welcome here. I can think of no time more urgent than now for us, as educators, educational administrators and students, to disavow the ugliness of Charlottesville by modelling civility, and by dedicating ourselves to our common humanity—to live and teach the values of brotherhood, tolerance and cross-cultural respect—and to honor at all times the spirit of our national motto: E pluribus unum—out of many, we are one. But this must be more than a response to a momentary event, because all too soon, we will be tested again. Our commitment must be constant and real and authentic—enough to transform our distress and outrage into the kind of dialogue and meaningful action that characterize the best of us—and the best of FIT.

The question is: how do we, as a community, do that genuinely. I have spoken frequently on this theme throughout the years, in particular emphasizing the importance of every day civility in our environment, not just as an ideal, but as actual individual behavior. Behavior that is owned and acknowledged. That is where it starts. That is why I am reaching out to you so early in the academic year. I can try to lay the groundwork by supporting programs and other services. But to approach this wisely in a determined and meaningful way, I need your ideas and suggestions—your engagement. Ours is a community rich in creativity and idealism and I believe that now is our opportunity, as an educational institution, to develop a plan that speaks to us as a community—a community that thrives on understanding, reciprocity, civility and inclusion. I have set up an email account so that you can share your thoughts and ideas and I look forward to hearing from you. Please write to me at

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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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