FIT Students Take First in Biodesign Challenge

I find FIT endlessly gratifying—a constant source of pride and delight. Who would expect that this college, with its celebrated focus on art and design and business, would take first prize in a design competition with a focus on science? Yet that is just what happened when, in June, at a presentation at the Museum of Modern Art, FIT’s team was declared the winner of the first annual Biodesign Challenge.

The Challenge, developed by a group of leading scientists, designers, and educators, involved nine colleges and universities, including some notable for their science programs, such as Carnegie Mellon, the University of Pennsylvania, and Rensselaer Polytechnic University.

Submissions were aimed at demonstrating the potential of biological design to make a substantial difference in the world. One of the competition’s founders, Daniel Grushkin, has said that his motivation for starting it was to witness the “growth of a community. Artists, designers, and scientists who might ordinarily keep to opposite sides of campus came together to work with the students.”

l-r: Gian Cui, Aleksandra Gosiewski, Tessa Callaghan, Aaron Nesser

Our team included Tessa Callaghan, Gian Cui, and Aleksandra Gosiewski, along with Aaron Nesser, a student at the Pratt Institute. All three FIT students are studying in the knitwear specialization in the fashion design program. Together, they developed an experimental technique to literally “grow” a kind of yarn from bacteria and fungi. They even produced—and displayed at the MOMA presentation—a sample hand-knit tiny T-shirt made from their novel material. They also developed a process to 3D print the material. Their idea serves as a demonstration project for the use of biological design to develop sustainable alternatives to the manufacture of conventional textiles.

Bioesters Biodesign Video from Biodesign Challenge on Vimeo.

It’s certainly a worthy cause—and one that fits in well with FIT’s sustainability goals and the amazingly diverse, but focused, skill sets FIT students possess. What also pleases me about the award is the light it shines on the creative, innovative, and real-world capabilities FIT students bring to everything they do, a sentiment echoed by fashion design professor Asta Skocir. Skocir, one of the team’s advisors, describes FIT as a “maker” school. “The nature of what we do is to design from initial concept to finished product,” she says. “Rather than looking at this material solely as a molecular structure, the students examined it through a fashion designer’s lens.”

One of the college’s strengths in this competition was its interdisciplinary and diverse set of advisors, including interior design professor Carmita Sanchez-Fong and science and math professors Theanne Schiros and Alexandra Wright, who worked with Sass Brown, acting associate dean of the School of Art and Design, to bring bioethics and biomaterials experts to campus.

The award is a tangible example not only of our capabilities, but also of our powerful potential in the cutting-edge, highly technical science-based fields so rarely associated with a college of art and design and business like FIT.