There is a paradox buried in the contemporary practice of science, and biomedical researchers may well be the poster children for it. They thrive on innovation but abhor risk. Grant funding is the engine of every academic lab, and wild ideas usually don’t pay. There were no professional incentives for Peter Jones to hire architecture grad students into his lab, and plenty of reasons that would have persuaded a by-the-numbers biologist to abandon the notion. By the same token, an architect seduced by living tissue makes a gamble of her own.
“We’ve both faced some ridicule, I must say,” Jones sighs, drawing a nod of agreement from Sabin. “There’s a perception of artists as flakes and scientists as geeks, and never the twain should meet. And there are certain places I’ve presented where it’s considered to be sort of play, rather than product.”
Yet it’s hard not to notice the way their collaboration has crept into the minds of an awful lot of their colleagues—at Penn and elsewhere. “We’re not really sure what’s going to come out of it,” says Anne Plant, who is confronting many of the same challenges as the leader of NIST’s Cell & Tissue Measurements Group. “One of the very exciting things about this work is that it’s very early, and very exploratory, and that’s what’s important … They are asking a question in a very different way than how it’s been asked before.”
Even if the exercise were to end today, LabStudio appears to have permanently enriched Jones’ basic research on breast cancer and lung disease. “There isn’t a single aspect of it now that hasn’t been touched by this,” he says. “It’s interwoven at this point.”
The feasibility of an adaptive building skin is yet to be determined, but for Sabin and many of her colleagues at PennDesign, that is only one among many potential benefits of a closer engagement with systems biology. “The modeling tools we’ve been using in design have become increasingly sophisticated—to the point where frequently you see the tools usurping the designers’ ability to navigate them effectively,” Sabin observes. The rigor that comes with plumbing cellular systems for lessons in how to apply next-generation tools with greater power and elegance should serve architects well.
“Crossovers are almost a kind of occupational hazard in architecture,” says Detlef Mertins. “And that’s a tradition that goes right back to the Renaissance. Architects were people who were effectively involved in military fortifications, engineering, fireworks—as well as building cathedrals and houses and other things.
“Architecture students who learn more about biology should be better able to understand and design buildings and environments within an ecosystems framework,” he continues. “To see buildings not as fixed, but as dynamic constructions—and as the result of processes that operate in time and involve energy and the transformation of material. The time frame may be decades or even centuries, but increasingly buildings—and certainly interiors—change within a few years.”
“And what is pathology?” Jones asks when he hears architects talking that way. “For me, it is the generation and loss of form.”
Now he’s sitting with Sabin, and the two are feeding off each other. The conversation ricochets from the basement membrane in breast cancer to deployable structures modeled after cell cytoskeletons, from high-throughput diagnostics to rapid manufacturing. Not for the first time, it is hard to keep up. LabStudio has spawned its own kind of data overload, a multitude of projects that will have to be winnowed to distill just one story. But then Sabin pauses.
“It was serendipitous that we met—” she says.
“—But no coincidence that we collaborate,” says Jones.
“We’re still sending each other e-mails at four in the morning.”
But now the conversation is regaining speed, and four in the morning is too long to wait.
An Architect Walks Into the Lab By Trey Popp