Can architects help create next-generation treatments for cancer and lung disease? Will the buildings of tomorrow have intelligent skins? What does figure skating have to do with it? An unusual partnership between Penn cell biologists and design students is tackling a lot of strange questions. Their answers may rewrite the rules of biomedical research.


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Eight months after coming to Penn to pursue a master’s degree in architecture, Erica Swesey Savig began leading a second life. While her fellow students papered their workstations with maps of city intersections, she would slip out of Meyerson Hall and walk across 34th Street to the Vagelos Laboratories. Inside she would don a pair of pale green latex gloves. If you happened to drop by on the right day, you’d then find her filling a sterile tissue-culture dish with collagen gel and a cloned line of vascular smooth muscle cells derived from a rat embryo.

Magnified in the climate-controlled chamber of a Nikon biological microscope, the cells would seethe and swarm in an apparent chaos of movement. Savig would watch. Every five minutes she would snap a digital photograph. Finally she would import several hours’ worth of images into a three-dimensional modeling software called Rhino that is most commonly used in industrial design.

Then the interesting part would begin. Depending on the characteristics of the collagen gel she used, these genetically identical cells appeared to move in different ways. Savig wanted to answer a deceptively simple question: Was it possible to distinguish between different environmental conditions by looking at cell movement alone?

Savig is not a scientist. Before that first foray into the lab in April 2007, she wanted to design buildings. The story of how cell biology commandeered her attention arises from one of the most unusual interdisciplinary collaborations to emerge at Penn in recent memory. It has enlisted architecture students in a quest to open new fronts in the treatment of lung disease and breast cancer, and aims to equip designers with tools that can bring their field into what some futurists have dubbed the Age of Biology.

To be more specific, Erica Savig has spent the last year and a half looking at smooth vascular muscle cells for two reasons. The most immediate is that they constitute a model of what happens in pulmonary arterial hypertension, a fatal disease whose causes are poorly understood. If she can leverage the unique capabilities of her architectural tool set to shed light on the derangement of tissue in diseased lungs, it could pave the way for a completely new approach to diagnosis and treatment.

Yet it is no coincidence that she is examining a cellular system that bends its behavior in accordance with the environment that surrounds and permeates it. Savig wants to incorporate the same sort of dynamic process into a building façade, enabling it to “intelligently” adapt to environmental conditions as they change—for instance, by varying the amount of sunlight or heat that can pass from the exterior to the inside. Marrying her laboratory insights with digital algorithms and nanoscale materials science, she aims to build a small physical prototype this year.

“I don’t want to design buildings anymore,” she said over the summer with a laugh that was only halfway in jest, as she reflected on the unexpected trajectory of her architectural education. “I want to design something that behaves.”

An Architect Walks Into the Lab By Trey Popp
Photograph by Candace diCarlo

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