Rachel Soo Hoo Smith Dissertation Defense

May 3, 2021
2:00pm — 4:00pm ET

Dissertation Title: How to Grow a Spaceship: A Hybrid Living Material (HLM) Framework for Developing Technological Interfaces to Complex Living Systems


Future-facing organizations forecast that our ability to design with biological systems—from genes, to bodies, to biospheres—will play a crucial role in meeting humanity’s goals for both planetary sustainability and long-term space exploration. Our foundational “spaceship” Earth is our only current form of sustained life-support, and yet we anticipate that the regenerative functions of our large-scale living systems are failing due to the Anthropocene. Our ability to productively and reciprocally mediate with complex living systems presents an intricate, urgent problem that necessitates hyper-interdisciplinary tools and expertise. While there are growing examples of how engineers and designers have merged the principles of artificial technology with biological processes, even these efforts are dispersed across disparate foci. Thus, there is need for a directive and an enabling structure to organize and assimilate tools and perspectives that guide research at the intersection of living systems and critical technology for the future. 

This dissertation establishes the field of Hybrid Living Materials (HLMs) as the study of how to interface human-designed systems with living materials, processes, and environments. In support of this goal, I define a conceptual HLM Framework that provides information-based hierarchical levels for HLM technology development: Materials, Modules, and Systems. To substantiate these level classifications, I present a corpus of projects that demonstrate novel approaches for coupling living systems to material fabrication processes, regulation programs, and architectural-ecosystem designs. Finally, to demonstrate the HLM Framework’s ability to address increasingly complex systems, I detail two “cross-level” research initiatives that integrate emergent phenomena exhibited by model organism groups: social bees and microbes. Results of these investigations produced data-rich, high-throughput, and interlinked tool suites that enable living systems to work in tandem with advanced analytical, computational, experimental, and collaborative technologies for cross-boundary information sharing and generation.

This dissertation contributes a conceptual and practical basis for the cross-disciplinary development of hierarchically complex tools for mediation with living systems. The goal of this work is to shift our perception of technology such that humans and complex living systems may co-author mutually beneficial collaborations for joint survival on Earth and in space. 

Committee members: 
Prof. Neri Oxman

Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, Director of the Mediated Matter Group, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Prof. Pamela Silver
Elliot T & Onie H Adams Professor of Biochemistry and Systems Biology, Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, Harvard University & Medical School

Prof. Dava Newman
Apollo Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Harvard-MIT Health, Sciences, & Technology (HST), Institute for Medical Engineering & Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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