Where Tech Meets Life

BioDesign Studio explores intersection of engineering and biology

The moment happens at almost every conference Romie Littrell attends. A respected scientist will take a trip down memory lane, telling the audience how he or she first became interested in biology.

“More often than not, they’ll say: ‘When I was young, I used to play with this thing that really made me think, and that’s why I do this today,’” recalled Littrell, curator and director for health and biotech projects at The Tech Museum of Innovation.

It was no different for Littrell and Anja Scholze, who created The Tech’s newest exhibit, BioDesign Studio. Both grew up in rural areas and became enthralled with biology simply by observing the world around them.

But those experiences can be rarer for kids today. And that’s why Littrell and Scholze are hoping BioDesign Studio, opening in March at The Tech, can help re-create the exhilaration that comes from exploration.

The highly anticipated exhibit, which has been in the works for more than two years, will feature both hands-on and digital activities, with the goal of sparking a sense of wonder about the world’s most complex technology: biology.

While BioDesign Studio will appeal to all ages, the hope is that it especially will plant seeds of excitement in young minds. Littrell believes those seeds will bloom years from now in the form of next-generation biotech researchers who will change the world.

“We want to help young people learn more about synthetic biology — without them even realizing it,” he said. “This exhibit will give them the confidence to explore biology and have that experience of creation. Biology is supposed to be fun, and this is all about thoughtful play.”

“The people who need to solve these huge problems we face with global food and health 15 years down the road are the same people who will be visiting this exhibit right now.”

Yes, play. That’s not normally a word associated with science. But BioDesign Studio will use exploration to teach about the intersection of biology and engineering, showing visitors that they can use this burgeoning field to solve complex global problems.

Littrell, a pioneer in the emerging do-it-yourself biology movement of participatory citizen science, founded a community biohacker space in Los Angeles before coming to The Tech. BioDesign Studio, he says, is one of the most ambitious attempts yet to make biotech accessible.

Planned to last for 10 years, the exhibition will evolve — like biology itself. The $5 million exhibit was made possible by several generous foundations including the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Franklin and Catherine Johnson Foundation.

“This will be a space where visitors of all ages can gain a deep understanding of their own power to use synthetic biology to solve big problems, like food security and climate change,” said Tim Ritchie, president and CEO of The Tech. “In BioDesign Studio, we’ll be inspiring the next generation of biotech innovators.”

The Tech faced monumental challenges in creating this exhibit. After all, Mother Nature works on her own time frame. How do you replicate the basic designs of life in a way that holds the interest of young people with short attention spans?

BioDesign Studio does it by ingeniously combining physical and virtual elements.

For instance, in the Biotinkering Lab, visitors will see how a naturally growing mycelium — the root-like fibers of a mushroom — can be used as an environmentally friendly building material. Visitors will start growing bricks in molds designed in fun shapes. Because mycelium takes about a week to grow, guests will also handle bricks built by others.

Scholze describes it as a cooking-show explanation of biology.

”They’re going to get to tinker with fundamental building blocks of life,” said Scholze, a biotech experience designer. “It’s going to be fun to see the looks on kids’ faces.”

Scholze declines to pick her favorite part of BioDesign Studio; she jokes that’s like asking a mother to name a favorite child. But Littrell already is predicting the exhibit’s breakout star — the Creature Creation Station.

The station is a physical and digital representation of how life is programmed. Visitors will be guided through the process of creating a set of biological instructions for a living thing, using tangible pieces that serve as stand-ins for genes and genetic parts. The end result resembles something you might see swimming under a microscope. Then, the creature will be “released” into the simulated environment of an arc-shaped, 30-foot-long screen display.

As kids watch their creatures interact with their friends’ designs, they might not even realize what they’re learning. But it may serve as a moment of inspiration.

“The people who need to solve these huge problems we face with global food and health 15 years down the road are the same people who will be visiting this exhibit right now,” Littrell said. “It all begins with making them feel like biology is fun.”

Biology is technology. How would you use it to change the world?

Visit thetech.org/biodesignstudio for more info.