Right: Outlines of a single human smooth muscle cell as it moves and changes shape for 14 hours, starting from its original round form. Left: Color-coded representations of the same cell’s changing area, perimeter, and furthest reach from the center over the same time span (overhead view of a 3-D digital rendering) Renderings by Erica Savig. The magazine’s cover features an oblique view of a related rendering of the same cellular data.


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Jenny Sabin is the kind of teacher whose main effect on students is probably either to bewilder them or change them forever. She speaks in trenchant paragraphs that occasionally threaten to buckle under the pressure of the ideas crammed inside of them. “We’ve talked about the cell as a loom,” she said one day over lunch, drawing an analogy between cell behavior and textile fabrication. “There’s this incredible thing going on where the cell is not only weaving its own environment, it’s moving within the environment and responding to it. And a lot of my former work was looking at the loop that exists between computation, material, weaving, and other textile processes. And I see parallel—different, but similar—loops in the research Peter is doing.” Her expertise in textile structures and computation imbues her design sensibility with a rigor that can be alternatively daunting or inspiring.

Sabin and Jones spent the next year discussing how they could collaborate. They had their sights set on something more concrete than a simple exercise in cross-disciplinary creative fertilization. Jones wanted to bring a different mentality into his lab, one that hadn’t been shaped by the sort of “enclave thinking” that can blinker scientists ensconced in a narrow specialty. Sabin quickly saw that this would involve problem-solving challenges that were salient to her field. “We would still be working with design,” she says, “but at a radically different scale.”

At Penn, the architecture curriculum extends a fair piece beyond the activities that typify the average practicing firm. “In a very short period of time, we give people an awful lot of skills,” says Professor Detlef Mertins. “We develop a sort of hand-eye coordination, we develop their imagination, we develop lateral thinking—and we do that through a whole variety of exercises.”

Some of those exercises strike out into pretty abstract terrain, but Mertins, who has written extensively about the intersection of biology and architecture, suggests that using Jones’ lab as a kind of classroom isn’t that far-out. “We’re interested in exploring how certain things that they’re studying in terms of cells—the surface of cells, the communication between the inside and outside of cells—can inform our way of designing building envelopes, or roofs, or canopies, or components of buildings.

“Buildings are shelters that separate the inside from the outside,” he continues, “but they also allow all kinds of communication between the inside and the outside through the envelope—the skin of the building, if you like. Whether it’s heat gain through windows, or ventilation, or other kinds of things, there’s an interchange that goes on between the inside and the outside. And of course these days, we want to optimize energy consumption … so at a time when all these environmental issues are so strongly in the foreground, it’s a very healthy thing to be exploring the potentials of natural models for all the aspects we deal with in buildings.”

In 2007, with substantial if cautious support from their respective departments, Jones and Sabin formed LabStudio. Three postdoctoral and graduate students in the IME were each paired with a counterpart from the School of Design. Jones and Sabin gave each team a different research brief. One would focus on cell surface design, another would investigate cell networking behavior, and the third—where Erica Savig landed—would concentrate on cell motility.

“The advantage of formulating these scientist-architect pairings,” Sabin says, “was that experiments could be redesigned based on the architect’s objective observations, intuition, and requests—and new tools could be developed and modified based on the scientist’s specific hypotheses.”

Jones and Sabin also created and co-taught a class called “LabStudio: NonLinear Design Diagnostics and Tooling.” The last word of that title is in many respects at the heart of their joint endeavor.

When Erica Savig peered through a microscope lens at smooth muscle cells, she wasn’t doing anything that numberless scientists haven’t done before. Cell motility has fascinated biologists ever since Antonie van Leeuwenhoek discovered the “pleasing and nimble” motions of single-cell organisms scooting about in rainwater in 1675. But when Savig imported those digital images into software that had been developed for architects and industrial designers, that was something new.

“Architects, it turns out, have incredibly sophisticated tools for visualizing things in four dimensions—three-dimensional space across time—and have incredibly sophisticated mathematical tools for dealing with spatial things,” says Mark Tykocinski, who was the Simon Flexner Professor and chair of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine before becoming dean of Jefferson Medical College in December. “Those things haven’t informed medicine and biomedical research in a very serious way until now.”

The notion that state-of-the-art biomedical labs have been stuck with tools that would get laughed out of an architecture studio is bound to surprise anyone who compares the typical operating budget in each realm. But there is truth in it, and consequences. In a paper slated for the January 2009 issue of the Journal of Mathematical Biology, University of California cell biologist and mathematician Alex Mogilner writes that “lack of standard modeling methods, difficulties in translating biological phenomena into mathematical language, and differences in biological and mathematical mentalities continue to hinder the scientific progress.” The title of his article is phrased as a question: “Mathematics of Cell Motility: Have We Got Its Number?” Three centuries after van Leeuwenhoek set biologists on the hunt, Mogilner’s answer, effectively, is no.

Peter Jones’ question was whether architects could help to push the ball forward at a faster clip. A year and a half later, he was having trouble containing his enthusiasm. “I mean, we’ve seen things that nobody’s seen before! You know, we’ve been sitting on some of this data—looking at these images, looking at these moving cells, looking at these tissues—and didn’t see what they can see.”

An Architect Walks Into the Lab By Trey Popp

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