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Exploradio: Biomimicry Ph.D
Biomimicry is the art of studying nature's way of problem solving.  A new biomimicry Ph.D. track at the University of Akron teaches sustainable design.
by WKSU's JEFF ST. CLAIR
This story is part of a special series.


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Jeff St. Clair
 
Industrial designer Doug Paige shows off the backside of his prototype kayak paddle modeled from the fins of reef fish. The face (not showing) has ridges that give extra traction in the water. He has yet to patent the design.
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The University of Akron is offering the world’s first doctorate in the field of biomimicry.  It’s a five-year exploration of nature’s solutions to industrial design problems. 

In this week’s Exploradio, WKSU’s Jeff St.Clair looks at a unique blending of art, science, and business.

 

Exploradio: Biomimicry Ph.D.

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Janine Benyus's 2002 book 'Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature' launched the biomimicry movement.  She now runs a private consulting firm and a non-profit that is developing the academic field of biomimicry.
The University of Akron's biomimicry Ph.D. team includes, from left, U.of A. art professor Matthew Kolodziej, Ph.D. Fellow, Bill Hsiung, Integrated Biosciences professor Peter Niewiarowski, Cleveland Institute of Art professor Doug Paige, Biomimicry 3.8 founder Janine Benyus, Ph.D. Fellows Emily Kennedy and Daphne Fecheyr-Lippens, researcher Alyssa Stark, and Biomimicry 3.8's Chris Allen.  Photographed at Seiberling Nature Realm.
Doug Paige teaches industrial design at the Cleveland Institute of Art.  He's also a professor of biomimicry at the University of Akron.  His PhD students will spend equal time in labs, and design studios.

Inspired by reef fish

Doug Paige teaches industrial design at the Cleveland Institute of Art, and is an avid kayaker.  He’s also a professor of biomimicry in the newly created biomimicry PhD. track at the University of Akron.  Biomimicry is an emerging field that looks to nature for design inspiration.  That's why Paige modeled his handmade prototype kayak paddle after the fins of slow moving reef fish, a design he says gives plenty of traction in the water.  Paige's paddle mimics the ridges in the pectoral fins of reef fish,"because they need to stop and start." He's not looking to mimic the fastest fish in the ocean, he's looking for ones, "that can really grab the water and stick.”

Form follows function.  It’s a principle industrial designers like Paige live by.  It’s also the guiding principle behind life on earth, according to biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus.  Benyus led Paige and his doctoral students on a walk in the park before she spoke Thursday in Akron.

Biomimicry 3.8

Janine Benyus is founder of the Montana-based consulting firm Biomimicry 3.8, as in 3.8 billion years of field testing for living organisms on earth.  Her firm is working with a new collaborative called Great Lakes Biomimicry to cultivate partnerships with local industries to sponsor Akron’s biomimicry doctoral fellows.  She say this is the first cohort of students who will graduate with a Ph.D in biomimicry, and the companies here in Ohio that want to be innovative and sustainable in their product lines "have heard about biomimicry."

Benyus says bioimimicry provides a whole new way of solving problems by researching how nature solves similar problems in living things.  She says companies are "going to look around and say, ‘Who do we have who’s trained in this way of thinking?’”

International cohort

The inaugural program has attracted three students from three continents.  Daphne Fecheyr-Lippens is from Belgium.  She has a masters in biochemistry, as does Taiwanese student Bill Hsiung.  Both plan to introduce the concept of biomimicry to their respective homelands. 

The third student is Emily Kennedy from Boston, who heard about Akron’s program while studying international relations in Australia. She values the varied backgrounds of the professors and students in the program.  She says,"it’s really a cool integration of different perspectives.”

Biologists at the design table, designers in the lab

The biomimicry Ph.D. is part of the integrated biosciences program at the University of Akron that brings together biology and engineering, and now creative designers like Doug Paige.  Paige says designers are trained to analyze function and to solve problems through the design process.  But in biomimicry, intimate knowledge of living organisms is required to unlock their functional secrets, "So it’s the two together that helps us understand either the resource behind it, or what we need to go study to help solve our problem.”

The five-year biomimicry doctoral degree being developed at the University of Akron is the first of its kind.  Biomimicry 3.8’s Janine Benyus plans to use it as a model for similar initiatives worldwide, part of her crusade to put biologists at the design table and in the boardroom.   


Related WKSU Stories

Biomimicry looks to nature for inspiration
Thursday, February 4, 2010

 
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