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Co-Director of the Biomimicry Center
Professor and Director of InnovationSpace, The Design School
Job scope: My job as codirector of the Biomimicry Center includes developing the center’s strategic vision, raising funds, overseeing special projects and research collaborations, recruiting faculty and sponsors as well as helping to teach biomimicry to design, business and engineering students. The Life’s Principles that best describe my role at the center are: Integrate Development With Growth, Evolve to Survive and Be Resource (and Material) Efficient.
History: I was born and raised in India and arrived on the shores of the US in 1991. After several years of nearly freezing to death in Columbus at the Ohio State University, I moved to southern California, where I thawed until 2000. That year I moved to even warmer weather when I joined the industrial design faculty at Arizona State University. Since 2005 I have directed the InnovationSpace program, a transdisciplinary product-development program.
Hidden talent: I play the saxophone and Indian drums (known as tabla) very badly. In my next life (or towards the end of this one!), I want to be a jazz musician.
Favorite book: When I was a kid in India, I used to read pulp westerns by Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour and Oliver Strange (who created a character called Sudden, named for his quick draw). Although I stopped reading these books a long time ago, I now live only a few hours away from such iconic western landscapes as the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley. The irony is really interesting to me. I have yet to wear a big silver belt buckle or eat a can of beans warmed over the campfire though! I wouldn’t mind the belt buckle, but the beans sound awful.
Comfort Food: I can find comfort in all foods. I love to cook using a secret ingredient from my mother—an incredible spice blend that is made from 20 different ingredients. I am extremely fond of Mexican food and have been picking up some recipes from the incredible Rick Bayless of Chicago.
Wild moment: On a recent biomimicry workshop in South Africa, I was photographing a nearby watering hole when a rhino began to stalk one of the workshop participants. It made me realize how tame and safe my life is in Phoenix—with the exception of geckos. Having one in the house can make me run for the hills. They are the most terrifying creatures on the planet…especially the little, translucent ones. I am not joking.
Favorite organism: Maybe it’s the product designer in me, but I love all kinds of bugs. They have amazing structures, colors, patterns and textures. And they do such strange and wonderful things.
Words to live by: It’s all good.
Co-Director of the Biomimicry Center
Professor of Practice, School of Life Science
Partner, Biomimicry 3.8
Job scope: I oversee the center’s educational initiatives, including the graduate degree and certificate programs in biomimicry. I also work with codirector Prasad Boradkar to provide strategic direction and ideation for the center’s research and outreach initiatives. Wearing two hats, I also coordinate the center’s partnership with Biomimicry 3.8 (B3.8). The goal of this partnership is to develop solutions for some of humanity’s most pressing problems by leveraging the global reach of B3.8 with the world-class faculty and expertise of ASU. The Life’s Principles that best describe my role at the center are: Use Multifunctional Design, Fit Form to Function and Evolve to Survive.
History: Since 1998, I have been working in the field of biomimicry alongside my business partner, Janine Benyus. I hold a B.S. in marine biology and fine art with a minor in chemistry from New College in Sarasota, Florida (1993), an M.S. in resource conservation (1995) and a Ph.D. in organismic biology and ecology from the University of Montana, Missoula (2002).
Memorable discovery: I vividly remember the first time I felt truly in awe of nature. I was 16 and living as an exchange student in the Philippines. I was preparing to take my first night dive on a coral reef as part of my certification in diving. As I entered the shallow waters en route to the reef, I suddenly found myself swimming through a community of bioluminescent bacteria. I was so mesmerized that I didn’t want to leave.
Prefer land, sea, or air: I would gladly turn in my land legs for gills and spend all of my time swimming in tropical waters (I am not cold-blooded!). I find these waters—with their diversity of life learning to thrive in community and incredibly dynamic three-dimensional spaces—to possess a compelling gracefulness. For me, they model the essence of life creating conditions conducive to life more than any other ecosystem.
Favorite quote: I come across many quotes, but inevitably find myself falling back on this one by Albert Einstein: “The world will not evolve past its current state of crisis by using the same thinking that created it.”
Thankful for: I am incredibly thankful that we are surrounded by life creating conditions conducive to life. We are such a young, fragile species, one whose reputation among all the other species is incredibly tarnished. It’s easy to lose hope for humanity. Yet, I can still get up each day, knowing that if we change the story we believe about ourselves, about each other, about nature and this planet, then everything can change, and only for the better. Stories are resilient, mutable and dynamic. They can evolve. The work that I am doing is ultimately about changing our story as humans, and I’m incredibly grateful to have this opportunity.
Life-changing experience: In 2012, I was diagnosed with Stage 2b/3a breast cancer. The journey from diagnosis to thriving has been incredibly transformative and full of love, healing and biological medicine. I eschewed industrial medicine and “walked the talk,” demonstrating that nature has important lessons for healing, not only our own bodies, but also the planet.
Assistant Director of the Biomimicry Center
Co-Director, InnovationSpace, The Design School
Job scope: My job here at the Biomimicry Center is extremely diverse. I help develop collaborative biomimicry projects in research and education. I also do some biomimicry teaching in ASU’s Design School. As a writer about biomimicry, I contribute a regular column to Zygote Quarterly and am working on a book about the biomimicry wonders of the Sonoran Desert. The Life’s Principles that best describe my role at the center are: Cultivate Cooperative Relationships and Reshuffle Information.
History: Before joining ASU in 2006, I worked as a writer and editor. I have continued my own writing projects which focus on natural history. In 2015 the University of Minnesota Press published North Shore: A Natural History of Minnesota’s Superior Coast, a book I coauthored with ecologist Chel Anderson. Currently I am working on a series of creative nonfiction essays tentatively titled The Ecology of Grief.
Favorite spot: Each year around the winter solstice I take a solo hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I love to stand on the edge at the Bright Angel trailhead and look down on the switchbacks that will take me through one of the most beautiful places on the planet. The first step feels like I’ve crossed a threshold into heaven. The euphoria usually lasts until the final two miles of the hike, at which point I am so tired and sore and hungry that I could strangle myself with my own bootlaces.
Favorite organism: How can you top the nasal appendage of the star-nosed mole, no pun intended? The moles’ nasal frill looks remarkably like a pink sea anemone—though not everyone has been so charitable. New York Times writer Natalie Angier has described it as fresh sirloin squeezed through a meat grinder. The mole’s schnazz is probably one of the most touch-sensitive organs of any animal on the planet. Ken Catania of Vanderbilt University won a MacArthur fellowship for his studies of the mole’s neurobiology. The fact that you can get a MacArthur for studying a critter like the star-nosed mole is one of the things that renews my faith in humanity.
Most intriguing function: The Sonoran Desert is the most ecologically diverse of the North American deserts. How the desert hosts such diversity is really interesting to me given that rainfall is scant and unpredictable, nutrients are scarce and temperatures fluctuate wildly.
So given these stressful conditions, how is it that the Sonoran Desert manages to produce this great ecological bounty? One of the most important strategies is that desert organisms form coalitions of the living. They leverage cooperative relationships—big time.
The really cool thing about all of this is that these positive interactions don’t just abound in desert environments. Scientists recently did a meta-analysis of positive interactions in ecosystems around the world and found that environments with the most intense biological and physical stresses are especially rich in positive interactions. It’s known as the Stress Gradient Hypothesis. I find the implications of this for human systems, such as design and business, endlessly fascinating!
Wild moment: Many years ago my late husband and I were fishing the headwaters of the Gallatin River in Montana when we crossed paths with a grizzly bear and two cubs. The cubs scurried off into the sagebrush while the mother bear stood up on her haunches to get a better look at us. Hearts thumping, we turned our backs to her and began to slowly walk away, desperately hoping that this gesture would be interpreted in bear-speak as “we come in peace.” It was the first time I understood Henry Beston’s observation that animals are “other nations,” whose language and customs can be as different from mine as a Bedouin encampment in the Sahara. I learned that grizzly bears, for example, do not like to be startled so now I wear bear bells in grizzly country. It is not just a safety precaution but a gesture of respect.
Words to live by: From Vaclav Havel: “Hope is not a feeling. It is not the belief that things will turn out well, but the conviction that what we are doing makes sense, no matter how things turn out.”
Associate Director of Research for the Biomimicry Center
Research Scientist, School of Life Sciences
Job scope: My role at the Biomimicry Center is to help facilitate interdisciplinary relationships among ASU researchers that may lead to novel developments in the field of use-inspired biomimicry. The Life’s Principles that best describe my role at the center are: Reshuffle Information and Integrate the Unexpected.
History: I have an interdisciplinary background, starting with a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering. I have held research appointments in computer science and life sciences. My current appointment as assistant professor is in both the School of Sustainability and the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering. My research focuses on understanding adaptive decision-making strategies in autonomous systems. To this end, my laboratory does empirical work with natural systems, such as social-insect colonies, and uses this information to design decision-making algorithms for artificial systems, such as decentralized energy-management systems for the built environment.
Comfort Food: When I moved to Tempe, I quickly established a close connection with a traditional-style Oggie from the local Cornish Pasty.
Favorite quote: “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” Polish proverb
Thankful for: In my job at the largest university in the United States, I have access to a tremendous amount of interdisciplinary resources. Each day I go to work with a sense that I could realistically work on any problem that interests me, without being constrained by a lack of resources. There are few places in the world that offer such potential and would reward someone with the kinds of interdisciplinary goals that I have. So I’m thankful that I am here.
Prefer land, sea, or air: Despite the tremendous and wonderful biodiversity in the sea and the amazing abilities of animals built for the air, I choose to explore the land. Psychologically, I find a stronger attraction to thinking about problems that I too, as a land animal, have to solve. Practically, I am more interested in working with systems that have more empirical tractability.
Go-to sense in the outdoors: It is crazy to focus on a single sense when outdoors. You would miss too much! It is critical to look for entropic deviations all around you, and that requires a multi-modal acquisition of the world around you. Sometimes something visual doesn’t become interesting until you realize that it is coupled to a particular sound. Similarly, things in the acoustic environment fail to be interesting until you realize that they are correlated with some particular smell or behavior. The most important thing about observing nature is to stop polluting the sensory landscape with your own contributions. Stop moving. Be quiet. Look, license, smell, and feel. Your senses are a resource! Don’t deprive one sense of the help it gets from another. When we build machines to sense from the environment, we work hard to fuse information from each sensor. Nature has done the same with the design and lifetime development of our own sensory systems. Trust nature, and use all of your senses. Amplifying one is just as bad as neglecting another.
Manager of the Biomimicry Center
Job scope: I handle all of the business and operational responsibilities for the center regarding outreach, education and research. I set up processes and policies that are effective and efficient so that the center can focus on achieving its goals. The Life’s Principle that best describes my role at the Center is Building from the Bottom Up.
History: I graduated from ASU in May 2014 with a degree in interdisciplinary studies with concentrations in business and global health. I also studied the culture, health and the environment of New Zealand and Fiji as a study-abroad student. My professional background is in business management, event coordination and radio promotions. I also volunteer for the Maricopa County Department of Public Health.
Favorite spot: I love being near a lake surrounded by forest. I grew up in the woods of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and so many of my favorite childhood memories were playing among the trees. I chose climbing trees or building forts over sitting at home in front of the television. These days I camp and explore the woods in northern Arizona and prefer to hike rather than climb trees and risk a broken bone.
Memorable discovery: During a recent Biomimicry Immersion Workshop in South Africa, I learned a lot of amazing things about dung beetles. My encounter with this little creature was especially memorable because Dayna and the rest of my group forced me to hold one, despite my strenuous objections. Despite my new-found admiration for dung beetles, I still do not enjoy touching them (or dung for that matter).
Comfort Food: Cheese. I looooooove cheese. Living in Wisconsin turned me into a cheese head.
Favorite quote: “There are always roses for those who wish to see them.” Henri Matisse
Thankful for: My job and the people I work with. I am also incredibly thankful for wine, my dogs, my significant other who cooks for me since I am clueless in the kitchen, my wonderful friends, and people who move out of my way when I am running late. (I am the woman in the car behind you screaming that you shouldn’t be on the road! Sorry.)
Words to live by: “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” (Totally goes against my last answer…but I AM working on it!) My mother gave me this advice when I was very young and it has had a huge impact on my dealings with people all my life.
Job Scope: I help with financial operations and administrative tasks. The Life’s Principles that best describes my role at the Center is Adapt to Changing Conditions.
History: Before working at the Center, I worked as a legal assistant in Tucson. I am currently a Business Sustainability major at Arizona State University.
Land, sea, or air: I would pick the sea to explore. I’m a very curious person and I am eager to know what undiscovered biodiversity exists under the sea.
Favorite book: My favorite book is The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.
Comfort Food: All food is comfort food for me. I enjoy trying new food and learning how it’s made. If I had to pick a favorite I would have to choose chilaquiles, especially when my mom makes them. Chilaquiles are a traditional Mexican dish usually had for breakfast.
Food for thought: My dad always encouraged everyone in our family to constantly ask questions. He taught us that it is better to sound ignorant for a minute than to remain ignorant.
Thankful for: I am thankful for all the amazing people that surround me and the freedom to travel the world.
Assistant Research Professor
Job Scope: My job as a biologist at the Biomimicry Center is to help coordinate and develop research projects that align with the center’s goals in biomimicry. I also teach biomimicry at ASU, develop outreach projects, and work on special projects that incorporate bio-inspired solutions. The Life’s Principles that best describe my role at the center are: Cultivate cooperative relationships and Integrate the unexpected.
History: I received my PhD in biology from ASU in 2012, and I joined the Biomimicry Center in 2017 after completing a postdoc at NC State University. My research focuses on the evolution and ecology of social insects, particularly ants. I have studied ants in the jungles of the Western Ghats, in the center of New York City, and in my own backyard.
Favorite organism: As an urban ecologist, I love organisms that have figured out how to thrive in cities. I’m always excited when I travel to a new city and see pavement ants, Tetramorium Sp E, crawling on the sidewalk. These ants have travelled with humans across the globe—and even to space—where they patrol our sidewalks for crumbs and help keep our cities clean.
Go-to sense in the outdoors: The sense of smell is my favorite sense in the outdoors, especially after rain. Petrichor is the scent that emerges when rain falls on soil after a long dry spell. The scent is composed from a mix of plant-based oils and compounds produced by actinobacteria that live in the soil. In the Sonoran Desert, we smell creosote after rain.
Memorable discovery: The first time I brought a colony of big-headed ants, Pheidole rhea, into my lab, they did something I had never seen before: they hung their larvae on the ceiling of their nest. On close inspection, the larvae had special hairs on their backs that attached to soil like Velcro®. It turns out that these hairs are common in ants, and this behavior has been happening underground for millions of years without anyone noticing.
Favorite book: When I played with a punk band in college, I was the only one who didn’t have tattoos. So when we finished our first tour, I got a scene from my favorite book—Moby Dick—tattooed on my leg. In the words of Ron Swanson, “I hate metaphors. That’s why my favorite book is Moby Dick. Just a good, simple tale about a man who hates an animal.”
Comfort Food: I bake sourdough bread on the weekends. It takes four days to get from an active starter to a finished loaf, but it always feels worth it after tasting the first piece with plenty of butter.
Industrial Design Research Assistant
Job Scope: I’m industrial designer for the Center, developing physical products and experiences for promoting biomimicry in education, as well as sponsored projects in the technology and accessibility sectors.
History: I recently graduated from ASU with a master’s degree in Industrial Design. Before that, I worked as a graphic designer, illustrator, and multi-purpose layabout.
Favorite spot: There’s a bit on the Oregon Coast, south of Newport. I’m not going to tell you exactly where. Depending on the tide and time of year, it’s either desolate or teeming with tiny pinchy life.
Favorite organism: Mimic octopus. Not just a marvel of evolutionary adaptation, but also clever, observant, adaptable, and an absolutely wild liar. Except for that last part, they’re sort of inspirational.
Most intriguing function: Nanoscale structures – the way organisms generate physical constructs that interact with the world at the chemical or even atomic scale, just with static shapes grown with mundane materials.
Favorite book: Pattern Recognition by William Gibson. The future’s already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.
Hidden talent: Recreational sword fights.
Job Scope: I’m working with Dr. Dayna Baumeister on creating different publications to have Biomimicry’s Life’s Principles reach a wider audience. The life principle that best describes my work is being locally attuned and responsive.
History: Since 2011 I have co-founded three social enterprises in Egypt. Nawaya works to transition small-scale farmer communities into sustainable ones through research. Dayma does outdoor environmental education, learning about Biomimicry and local culture. Clayola creates household low-tech irrigations solutions. I have also been a board member of Slow Food international since 2012. I received my MSc from ASU in Biomimicry (2016) and my undergraduate degree from the American University in Cairo with a dual degree in Biology and Anthropology (2002). I’m currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Sustainability at ASU.
Favorite spot: Nothing makes me happier than being in the Red Sea, in Egypt. Especially after having learned how to free dive. Being down in the sea watching the incredible life around the coral reefs is always mesmerizing. Breathing deeply, then holding my breath and plunging down, trying to be as streamline and conserving of my energy and then getting as close as I can to eels, turtles, sea slugs, parrot fish and many other wonderful organisms fills me with such joy.
Go-to sense in the outdoors: I absolutely adore smelling. It’s my first pull to choosing a partner :). The second I arrive in the holy mountains of Sinai, i’m filled with a sense of peace and strength. There is always a strong scent of wild herbs that even attaches to clothes. Now that I’ve moved to Arizona, I’m exploring the new scents here, such as the sweet aroma of rubbing a creosote, which to me smells like a mix of camphor and citrus. As a food lover, it is always through smell that I first get attracted to food.
Comfort foods: so many, not sure where to start. However, the biggest comfort food has to do with who makes it, I love cooking and being in the kitchen with friends and family making meals together. For my wedding I was lucky enough to have a wonderful group of friends and family who literally camped at my house for three days, to produce amazing food made with so much love. But if I have to choose… a home-made lasagna.
Favorite book: At the age of 18 I read Ishamel, by Daniel Quinn. Although i don’t remember all the details of the book, I remember the sense of connection to nature I felt after finishing it sitting watching the sunset on the red sea. The book’s narrator is a gorilla that is teaching us, humans, how to better connect to this earth and to stop being “takers.” “leavers” which are known as the “primitive people” see that the “man belongs to the world” rather than the “world belongs to man.”
Land, sea, or air: SEA, SEA, SEA. The best encounter was swimming with whale sharks off the coast of Yucatan.