Spiders on Your Face and Other Student Biodesigns

The first BDC projects pair people with bugs
person wearing POD

Fitbits on our wrists, sensors in our shoes, rings that message us—wearables are all the rage. But what if wearables were alive? That’s the kind of question Mónica Butler asked when she put an orb-weaver spider on her face. Her creepy-crawly facemask was part of her team’s exhibition from the Biodesign Challenge course at University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) this fall.

Several student teams from BDC’s pilot semester took their inspiration from humankind’s original wearable—the microbiome, the billions of microbes that live in and on us and help digest food, process nutrients and may even affect our moods. Instead of microorganisms, the teams went big—they focused on larger organisms.

Butler and her teammates Rebecca Van Sciver and Jiwon Woo called their spider mask Stabilimentum, Latin for “support.” The couture device cleans the air the wearer breathes using live spiders and the electrostatic properties of their silk. Inspired by the relationship between humans and microbes, the fashion accessory creates a symbiotic relationship between human and arachnid (Check out the team’s projects on UPenn’s class website and on BDC’s site).

Interestingly, students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s BDC course this fall envisioned a parallel product using genetically engineered plants and an aeroponic growing system to deliver fresher air to the wearer. Clare Severance, Maria Michails, Sean Concannon and Dan Seel imagined their Personal Oxygen Device (P.O.D.) doubling as a fashion-forward accessory and a greenhouse for edible microgreens for snacks on the go. Check out their project here.

Sketch of people wearing POD

Meanwhile, others focused on microbes that call human skin their home. Rebecca Hallac and Vincent Snagg at UPenn created a smart bracelet, called Probiome, that automatically sprays surfaces with customized probiotics containing Staphylococcus epidermidis, bacteria that protect the skin from pathogens. The team developed a functional version that pairs with a computer keyboard to prevent MRSA infection in hospitals.

Projects like these are just a sampling from BDC’s year of biodesign. Check back next week for more highlights from the first semester of student projects.