Students Across Disciplines Innovate in the 2022 Biodesign Challenge

Two significant environmental issues our nation faces today include invasive plant species and a lack of sustainable materials. Invasive plant species are detrimental to host environments by flushing out native species and consuming excessive amounts of resources, and the lack of sustainable materials contributes to the ongoing struggle with pollution our planet faces. 

Kent State University students are working to turn invasive plant species into a sustainable material that can help protect the environment through the 2022 Biodesign Challenge.

The Biodesign Challenge is a course through the Design Innovation Initiative. It is part of a national competition in which any Kent State student can enroll in the course and contribute to a project including multiple disciplines to create sustainable solutions to real world problems.

The course is co-instructed by three professors, including Chris Blackwood, Diane Davis-Sikora and Margarita Benitez. Benitez is an associate professor in fashion design, the fashion technologist at Kent State’s School of Fashion and the faculty director for the TechStyleLAB, a creativity hub focusing on digital fabrication and digitalization. In addition to instructing the biodesign challenge and courses specific to their fields, Blackwood and Davis-Sikora are co-directors of the Environmental Science and Design Research Institute (ESDRI), which is dedicated to research and investigations within natural and built systems. 

“The course runs parallel to the international Biodesign Challenge, and students are tasked with exploring biotechnology as a way to solve environmental problems,” Davis-Sikora said. “It is team based, so groups of interdisciplinary teams are working together toward a topic they collectively identify.”

The initial course consists of teams of students with diverse backgrounds, and each team competes with their ideas for the chance to move forward and develop their entry in the spring semester.

The team chosen to represent Kent State at the international competition includes: 

  • Celia Ohnmeis, fashion design junior

  • Alyssa Skilton, M.S. architecture, B.S. conservation biology

  • Gabriela Gonzales-Allende, M.S. architecture and environmental design

  • Justin Byler, third year M.S. architecture

  • Tyler Mathes, third year M.S. architecture, B.S. biomedical engineering

“There were so many great projects we didn’t know what the outcome would be, but we dedicated so much time and love to this project and we were really invested even when we didn’t know how it would turn out,” Skilton said. “We still are dedicated, so it’s pretty sweet to be able to continue on this journey.”

The diverse nature of this course allows all the students enrolled to explore new ideas as opinion leaders of their own fields in each group.

“Students that have enrolled have been thrilled to get to the junior or senior level within their specialized work,” Blackwood said, “and to have the opportunity to work on a team with people who are in totally different specialized fields but have similar ultimate goals.”

The team’s entry idea consisted of extracting a hydrogel from an invasive plant species, phragmites, in order to create a biodegradable yet durable fabric and construction material. It would be sustainable to create while also directly helping free ecosystems from the plant. The plant can keep storm water from draining, and as a result cause harm to native species.

“As a construction material, we’re providing a new, biodegradable material that is not going to harm the environment and is going to have a limited period when it’s going to last after construction is demolished,” Gonzales-Allende said. 

Phragmites have become a prevalent species, and the group found it is even present on the Kent Campus, which means the project could eventually benefit the local community and environment directly. 

“The thing we worked toward is a reactive fabric, made out of environmental species’ fibers from the phragmites themselves,” Mathes said. “We thought of having that fabric react to certain stimuli in the environment, and in this case we picked moisture as the stimuli.”

Once the group had come up with a way to turn the invasive species into a sustainable and useful material, they just had to operationalize the project to create a tangible product. 

“Once we had the fabric from the invasive species, we used a hydrogel that we created from cellulose that was also extracted from the species,” said Gonzales Allende. “The hydrogel can expand and contract based on moisture, so the goal is to create a fabric that can react to the environment based on the reactivity of the hydrogel so it can be coated onto the fabric and they can work in unison.” 

The kinds of research and innovation present in this type of course fit perfectly into the culture of success at Kent State in the research field.

Kent State, along with Yale, Harvard and the University of California-Berkeley, is ranked as an R1 elite research institution by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, which is the highest recognition that doctoral universities can receive. 

This high honor is a derivative of the passion that the students and faculty at Kent State have for their fields, and their relentless pursuit of excellence and new experiences in the face of adversity.

“There are these moments where we are going into something we think feels impossible and something has to go wrong, but once that moment happens where it works the way you had hoped, it’s so exciting,” said Byler. “It was the same with the cellulose extraction because once it works, it is quite an experience.”

The group collaborated seamlessly to create more of those moments by sharing responsibilities and delegating work based on its field and relevance to the group member completing it. 

“Half of us have a focus on the hydrogel aspect of the project, while the other half is working on the fiber and fabric component so we can all bring it together in the end for a complete product,” Ohnmeis said. 

Sharing these responsibilities and understanding each group member’s strengths has given each of them a chance to shine.

“While everyone shares responsibilities, Alyssa and I had more of a hard science background which allowed us to handle more lab work,” Mathes said. “Celia is in fashion so she had been able to help with the textile design and how we can weave and apply it architecturally with the help of Justin who is in architecture. Then you also have Gabby who is able to float and help with everything as a whole.”

This combination of fields and their positive attitudes has been a recipe for success thus far in the competition in both product development and entrepreneurial function, and the group hopes to continue their success through the rest of this opportunity. 

For more information on past challenge entries, visit www.kent.edu/today/news/collaborative-biodesign-challenge-course-opens-new-opportunities.

For more information on the Biodesign Challenge, visit www.biodesignchallenge.org/.

POSTED: Friday, April 29, 2022 - 10:34am
UPDATED: Wednesday, May 4, 2022 - 7:50pm
WRITTEN BY:
Austin Monigold