Collaborative Biodesign Challenge Course Opens New Opportunities

The words “biology” and “design” might not typically intertwine; however, Kent State University’s Biodesign Challenge course was created to challenge the idea that the two separate disciplines could not collaborate. The course was a collaboration between Design Innovation and Environmental Science and Design Research Initiative (ESDRI), and was taught by School of Fashion associate professor Margarita Benitez,  Architecture associate professor Diane Davis-Sikora and Biology professor Chris Blackwood. 

During the fall of 2019, two dozen students from seven different majors (including biology, fashion, architecture, environmental studies, and computer technology) worked in teams to create a biodesign project. Biodesign, according to biology professor Chris Blackwood, Ph.D., starts with a process.

“Design is a process by which products and systems are developed with an end use, and an end user, in mind,” Blackwood said. “Everything made by people that we touch is designed by somebody. Biodesign takes advantage of scientific knowledge to enable the use of living organisms in our products, manufacturing processes or buildings.”

Six projects were completed over the course of the semester, four of which involved the fashion industry and two of which addressed new systems for clean water, food, architecture and energy production.

BioBlack tests a swatch in a beaker filled with tanninsThe BioBlack group consisted of junior biology major Kirsten Thieman, junior fashion design major Lizeth Ramirez and sophomore fashion design majors Janda van Dyk and Jordan Smith.

The BioBlack project was focused on creating a sustainable black dye alternative. Currently the fashion industry uses synthetic dye to create the color black, so the team decided to work with bacteria to create a more eco-friendly replacement.

“Today, the fashion industry is one of the largest contributors of waste and they use toxic chemicals and a lot of water waste to create their dyes,” Thieman said.

While sustainable alternatives to red, yellow, purple and blue dyes have already been developed, a sustainable black dye was yet to be created.

“Black is the most common color,” Smith said. “It’s also gender neutral and not many colors are gender neutral. Everyone can wear black, which provides options for a diverse group of people.”

J.R. Campbell, director of the Design Innovation Initiative at Kent State, said that students and faculty both experienced new challenges throughout the course, which were resolved in different ways.

“Right from the start, this course changed the way professors normally thought about their own areas of study,” Campbell said. “Chris Blackwood was allowing fashion students to work in his lab and conduct experiments in a way that he probably would have never naturally done with his own students in his own degree area.”

This boundary stretching permeated all facets of the class as Davis-Sikora advised environmental studies students in the design and construction of in-home filtration systems, and Benitez guided architecture students through the process of crafting biotextiles.

The collaborative nature of the course also excited the students.

“I was excited about the biology aspect of the course because I am not familiar with integrating biology and fashion for the purpose of creating an innovative product,” van Dyk said. “Luckily, I met Kirsten, and she’s been an amazing part of the team to help us with the biology aspect of BioBlack.”

During the project, the students worried about receiving the bacteria for their project in time and even had to reorder new bacteria to see if they could solve the problem in a more efficient manner.

“We didn’t think that we were going to have enough time to actually do our project and see the potential results from it,” Thieman said. “As soon as we got the bacteria, we really worked on it for the last couple of weeks that we had, and then we ended up getting our results.”

The teams competed to win the ultimate prize: to represent Kent State University at the International Biodesign Summit, traditionally held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Due to COVID-19 the event will be a virtual competition online from June 15 to 20.

This year, BioBlack won the competition.

“We won the whole design challenge,” Ramirez said. “In the beginning of the course, they explained to us that they would choose one team to go to New York City and present their cases with other universities. I think it really opened the door for a great opportunity.”

Kent State University’s Environmental Science and Design Research Symposium (ESDRI) is where students would have had another opportunity to highlight their projects; however, due to the current state of COVID-19, the symposium has been canceled. According to the symposium website, the planning committee is actively exploring alternate ways to manifest the symposium.

“As far as the symposium goes, it was somewhere that I was going to present the work,” Smith said. “I think our project still pushes change and gets new ideas out there in the world, so as long as people are viewing our work, that’s all that matters.”

To learn more about Bioblack or the Biodesign Challenge 2020, visit: Bioblack Instagram, Bioblack, or Biodesign Challenge 2020.

Learn more about the Kent State Biologal Sciences Department

Learn more about Design Innovation

Read more about BioBlack

Image Captions:

  • Banner Left: Photo by Alyssa Smith. BioBlack team poses with an incubator with a bacteria-dyed tote bag on the day winners were announced.
  • Beanner Right: Photo by Janda van Dyk. A 100% silk dupioni floor-length gown. The purple is Janthino Lividum Bacterium which is the bacteria used in the project.
  • Story Photo: Photo by Jordan Smith. The beaker is filled with tannins consisting of leaves and acorns found by the fashion school. The team tested a swatch to see how the tannins would change the color of the bacteria after submerging the swatch with the bacteria into the warm water with tannins.
POSTED: Friday, April 3, 2020 02:07 PM
Updated: Friday, August 4, 2023 03:32 PM
Linden Miller