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Exhibiting at the Media Lab: Canan Dagdeviren reflects on exhibiting student work

Canan Dagdeviren | MIT Media Lab

Life is just too short to complain about your academic frustrations, which may be full of setbacks, failures, and stress. For students as well as faculty, it can be easy to focus on the negative. Instead, I feel that it’s important to teach my students—the scientists who will address tomorrow’s needs—to find joy in frustrations and turn them into an elegant response. In our case, that response is a Media Lab lobby exhibit that blends media, art, and science: The Bees of Science.

Like bees, my students work at the intersection of nature, art, and science, drawing on both their experiences in diverse fields of science and engineering and also their diverse cultural backgrounds, much as the bees draw nectar from a host of different flowers. They then apply their minds, hearts, and hands to create unique micro- and nano-scale, mechanically adaptive electromechanical systems for human health monitoring—their scientific “honey.”

Following through on the bee analogy, I decided to display projects developed by students in my MAS 810 Decoders 1.2 class in seven honeycombs. Each honeycomb shows not only a new conformable device developed by the student, but also his or her artistic/personal inspiration for the design: a grandmother’s face, an ultrasound image of an infant son, or a beautiful butterfly.

Whether the result is a novel, stretchable device for ultrasound imaging, a wearable strain sensor for measuring your hands’ tremors seamlessly, or an implantable, remotely controllable, miniaturized neural drug delivery system for studying the underlying mechanism of Parkinson’s disease, these conformable devices demonstrate the benefits to society made possible when we channel our deeply personal and artistic inspirations to our scientific inquiry.

Yes, bees are magical, and so is the output of their efforts: honey. Honey’s lifespan can be preserved for almost a century, just like the rigorous science that we do.

Putting together this exhibit helped me to reflect on both my personal and academic lives. Like my students, I draw on inspiration to help me grow and develop a unique perspective: one that involves being both straightforward and, like nature itself, adaptive. The process of adaptation at the Media Lab has caused me to fail multiple times, but I have learned something from each failure. My adaptiveness has spurred me on to design and create in new ways—most recently with this exhibit. 

The Bees of Science is not only an exhibit: it is a window through which I’d like you to observe and understand how we do science. The science does not have a transient outcome, yet it has a long-lasting impact with a profound integrity, not unlike the lifespan of honey. Our bees—known to us as students—accept both criticism and failure in their pursuit of impactful results; and these individuals can work with any of their peers as needed (i.e., scientific collaboration, collective intelligence) and produce their “honey,” (reproducible results with scientific integrity).

When you view the exhibit, you may be struck by the vast white wall upon which the honeycombs are mounted. For me, this wall represents my straightforwardness. Whatever is mounted on it will be clearly seen, as I transparently reflect upon my struggles. But most of all, I hope this exhibit—which turned out to be a wonderful and fulfilling collaboration with my students—will reflect the intellectual and artistic climate in which it was created, with our minds, hearts, and hands. It is our effort to communicate with the rest of our beehive community: the MIT Media Lab.

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Canan Dagdeviren | MIT Media Lab

I’d like to express my special thanks to Ellen Hoffman and Paul Montie who guided and supported me throughout this exhibit project; to the exhibit installers, Matt Honan and Joe Wallace; and the students of Decoders 1.2 course, the course TA, my grad student Farita Tasnim, and my lab manager, David Sadat for their diligent work and support. I also would like to thank Neri Oxman and Joi Ito for embracing my exhibit idea and for their continued warm encouragement.


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