Polymer scientist Al Crosby and functional biologist Duncan Irschick, the inventors of the gecko-inspired adhesive, Geckskin, are co-directors of a new, system-wide UMass Center for Evolutionary Materials. It is intended to be a home for researchers from many fields who are interested in pursuing bio-inspired technologies to create new designs and products to benefit people and the environment.
Irschick explains that he and Crosby, inspired by the scientific and intellectual richness of their own collaboration and the success of Geckskin, want to see a center that will “engage people on a deep level of bio-inspiration, not as a buzz word but as a kind of intellectual playground for unstructured creativity. Such centers can be useful to foster collaborations.”
Irschick, who with his students is also developing the Beastcam and new 3D modeling technologies and applications, says, “The basic idea of the center is to bring people together from around New England and the world who are interested in bio-inspired technologies. We already have 21 faculty committed to attend a monthly meeting where we’ll listen to research from different areas. People may hear some new ideas there that give them an opportunity to pursue cross-disciplinary connections. We want to provide the opportunity for people to think outside the box, to see something new and stimulating, and to imagine new things that might come out of it.”
Crosby adds, “There are plenty of opportunities now for researchers to be very focused. The center invites researchers who haven’t traditionally collaborated in the past to think in a different way. And we also know that it’s attractive to businesses and industry to identify researchers who are willing to think about their technical problems in a broader context.”
Jennifer Green, the center’s program manager with an office in the Conte Polymer Research Center, says its founding 21 members come from the biology, chemical engineering, physics, mechanical and industrial engineering, and polymer science departments at UMass Amherst and radiology and dermatology at the UMass Medical School.
She says, “As part of our mission, we want to make sure we reach out to the community.” The center recently piloted a curriculum unit called “BioInspire!” for about 40 students in two fifth-grade art classes at Fort River Elementary School in Amherst, and have circulated the unit to about 50 art teachers around the nation for this academic year.
“We have also had many visitors to campus from elementary and high schools who are studying bioinspired technologies in school; they come to learn the story of Geckskin,” Green adds. “For example, one high school sent students from their technical education and AP biology classes so they can begin to exchange ideas and think about how technology and biology can inspire each other. The center is on a continuing effort to encourage students at all levels to think outside the box.”
At the university level, Green, Crosby and Irschick say they hope as faculty and their undergraduate and graduate students become more involved with the center, new ideas will bubble up and percolate.
The center works with non-profits such as museums, conservation groups, non-profit publishers and media organizations. Many center faculty are interested in sharing their work with non-profits for use in education. On its website’s invitation to business and industry, the center announces, “Recent work with novel fibers may allow new ways to control wound healing, to remove bacteria from solutions, or to provide antibacterial resistance. We are actively looking for new collaborators that will contribute to this mission.”
Crosby adds, “We are excited to introduce the center as a creative forum for new ideas that extend scientific understanding while also having a positive impact on society and the environment.”