Our Meet a Biomimic series continues with Alyssa Stark. Alyssa is a scientist, or a functional morphologist as she calls herself, studying biological adhesives. Her current research focuses on the adhesive systems of ants and geckos (learn more at her website). From developing biomimicry science programs for elementary school kids to mentoring participants in the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge, Alyssa remains heavily involved in spreading and teaching biomimicry. Read on to learn more about her journey and hear her advice on how to incorporate biomimicry into your work.
Tell us about how you first learned about biomimicry. What was your biomimicry “aha” moment?
Thus far, I have had two “aha” moments in biomimicry, both of which were actually personal “failures”. I think that you learn a lot from failing, and I certainly have had my share!
The first was at the 2011 Annual Biomimicry Education Summit. Although I was used to scientific conferences, I quickly found that I was ill-equipped for a biomimicry conference. I had no idea how to talk to some of these people! How does a biologist talk to an architect? I am usually good at finding common ground, but I was totally falling flat in this environment. This experience challenged me in a huge way, particularly by opening up my tiny world of science and forcing me to acknowledge that I was not nearly as interdisciplinary as I had thought.
My second moment occurred in the last year of my PhD when working for the Biomimicry Research and Innovation Center (BRIC) at the University of Akron, Ohio. My job was to coordinate the first cohort of Biomimicry PhD students and their corporate sponsors, focused on bringing together a large working group around biomimicry. This included collaborating with members of BRIC and Great Lakes Biomimicry, the first affiliate partner of Biomimicry 3.8. While I enjoyed this position, at times it was very difficult, and I often felt like something I developed had failed, became frustrated, and wished I had done something differently. It was not until about nine months in that I truly had my biomimicry “aha” moment. It was not specific, I just took a step back one day and realized that I “got it.” There was less frustration, and I had become more comfortable navigating situations that were totally new to me, and usually new to all of us. More importantly, I saw a much bigger picture of biomimicry and what I could do to be a part of it. Perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence that it took about nine months of hard work to “birth” this new, deeper understanding of biomimicry.
What is your current job and how do you incorporate biomimicry into your work or life?
Currently, I am a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Biology at the University of Louisville, Kentucky, mentored by Dr. Steve Yanoviak. I consider myself a functional morphologist that studies biological adhesives, focused right now on the adhesive systems of ants and geckos. As a scientist, it is my job to gather information on the biological forms, processes, and ecosystems that biomimicry practitioners wish to emulate. Because I earned my PhD in Integrated Bioscience, I am also a good translator. As a PhD student, I had two advisers: Dr. Peter Niewiarowski from the Department of Biology and Dr. Ali Dhinojwala from the Department of Polymer Science. This means that I approach my research questions from two directions, and that I can translate my findings across these disciplines.
Since moving to Louisville, I partnered with the Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research to host a one-day symposium on biomimicry. The feedback from this event was amazing, and has spurred on a small working group which consists of academics in biology and engineering, as well as city and state government officials, and a local entrepreneur. I have also had the opportunity to bring biomimicry into the classroom. I have given three guest lectures on biomimicry, reaching over 200 students, at the University of Louisville. Currently, I work with two local elementary school teachers to develop science programs around biomimicry for 4th graders. The results of this collaboration will be published soon for others to use. I am also excited to join the Biomimicry Institute’s team as a mentor for the Global Design Challenge. It is important for me to keep biomimicry in my life and incorporate it into my work whenever possible, despite my current transitory lifestyle as a young scientist.
How did you get to where you are today? What paths led you to biomimicry?
Making the transition to biomimicry has been relatively fluid. As an integrated bioscientist, I thrive at the intersections of science, thus, adding in business, art, and other fields feels like a natural progression on this theme. I also innately like to challenge myself and push my own personal boundaries, and biomimicry is an excellent way to do that. I was first introduced to biomimicry through one of my PhD advisers, Peter Niewiarowski. I took the classic steps, reading Janine Benyus’ book and going to a biomimicry event (the 2011 Biomimicry Education Summit). I also participated in a Backyard Biomimicry Workshop through the Biomimicry Institute. At some point I became “hooked.” The critical parts of my path came through mentorship and immersion. To this day I still use my PhD advisers, the team at Great Lakes Biomimicry, and the Biomimicry PhD Fellows at the University of Akron as a major source of inspiration and guidance. Ultimately, I have always wanted to make a difference in the world, and I see biomimicry as the best way to do this given my skills and passion.
What advice do you have for others who are looking to enter the field of biomimicry or hoping to incorporate it into their work?
Don’t be afraid to fail! Biomimicry can be hard at times, but the “aha” moment is coming. Force yourself out of your comfort zone and keep an open perspective. I would suggest attending biomimicry events. Attending SXSW Eco in October 2015 gave me a chance to see what our network really looks like, and it is amazing. The connections you make and the skills you learn at these events will help you incorporate biomimicry into your work, making entry easier. It is also important to remember that a lot of this work, especially initially, is on personal time. I have spent many years as a volunteer (so I have a deep passion for this type of work) but it can be a challenge, especially if you are the sole driver in your workplace or area. Despite this, I have been continually amazed at what opportunities open up with relatively little effort. People are excited about biomimicry, or they can easily find a connection that excites them. As a practitioner and catalyst, your job is to find the door with that sliver of light shining through and crack it wide open.
What kind of people are you looking to collaborate with?
I need people on opposite sides of the spectrum from me – the more different, the better. Trying to find common ground can be a challenge, but it’s the ability to make these connections that makes biomimicry unique and drives it forward. We all need to get out of our own personal boxes. I work with scientists and various types of educators all day. I would love to interact with other professionals, such as designers, architects, and social leadership experts. These are the types of people I still find it a bit hard to relate to, but undoubtedly will be the key to my own growth, and I hope I can be the key to theirs. In my opinion, it is at these intersections where the most exciting and unique ideas emerge.