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Inspired by nature: Biomimicry

To the casual observer, an abalone shell likely wouldn’t inspire thinking around nontoxic alternatives to cement blocks any more than a forest ecosystem would spark ideas about urban development. To biomimicry researchers like Ayla Kiser, Ph.D. and Sara El-Sayed, however, these represent just a fraction of the human challenges that can be solved by emulating nature.

The two women are current and former students in ASU Online’s Master of Science in Biomimicry program, a first-of-its-kind degree that focuses on the emerging world of applying natural functions to human design. Offered in collaboration with Biomimicry 3.8 through The Biomimicry Center at ASU, the master’s also complements the Certified Biomimicry Professional program offered by Biomimicry 3.8.

Ayla was a Sun Devil even before joining the biomimicry program, graduating in 2011 with a doctorate degree in environmental engineering. She discovered biomimicry while studying at ASU and in 2009, had the opportunity to hear Janine Benyus — a biologist who popularized the term biomimicry in her 1997 book — speak on campus.

“The room was packed, the energy was great and people were really inspired by what she was saying,” Ayla remembers.

She began keeping an eye on biomimicry in the United States, and when she learned they were starting a master’s program at ASU, decided to apply. She anticipates graduating in fall 2018, and is on track to earn her Biomimicry Professional certification this spring.

One of the most rewarding accomplishments during her studies thus far has been accepting a job as a postdoctoral scientist with Johnson & Johnson, becoming the company’s first in-house biomimicry expert. She is currently working to build a biomimicry pillar within the company and find ways to apply biomimicry for the sustainable innovation of consumer healthcare products.

The only catch? The job is located in France, about an hour northwest of Paris by train in the region of Normandy.

“I did a semester abroad and studied French during undergrad,” she says. “Little did I know at that time that I would eventually come back and work here.”

The biggest advantage of her online master’s program has been, not surprisingly, its flexibility.

“As someone who works full-time, I can’t imagine doing it any other way,” she says. “I am so grateful for the education I’ve gotten at ASU. You don’t realize just how much you’ve learned and how valuable the tools are that you’ve been given until you go out in the real world and apply them. I started work at the beginning of August, and I’ve had the tools I’ve needed to hit the ground running.”

She adds that it would have been impossible to learn everything on her own through independent study, an option she had also considered.

“I wondered if I needed another master’s degree, since I had been in school for years,” she says. “Now I realize there’s no way I could have done it independently. The wealth of information and knowledge provided by professors, as well as the interaction with other students has been priceless. I couldn’t have gotten it in any other format. The fact that I got this job before even finishing this degree — I was still really well qualified.”

Sara El-Sayed knows what it means to juggle many passions and jobs while attending school. In 2010, she was working for a local non-governmental organization in her hometown of Cairo, Egypt, when she was tasked with a research project that ultimately led to her discovery of biomimicry. After watching multiple TED Talks from Janine Benyus, she applied for the Certified Biomimicry Professional program and became part of the second cohort — one of only 16 people accepted out of hundreds of applicants.

“I was applying from Cairo and didn’t expect to get in,” Sara says. “Plus, I thought any program would be too expensive and I wouldn’t get any scholarship or funding. I ended up getting both.”

Thus began an intensive two-year period that combined online programs with field intensives in a variety of different ecosystems.

“The mix of online and field study was what made it so life-changing,” she explains. “It was a shift in my paradigm and the way I look at the world. I had a very strong connection with my cohort, and we became lifelong friends who still talk to one another every day.”

The group’s first field experience was in Tucson, where they studied the desert ecosystem. Destinations also included Vancouver and Salt Spring islands, where they kayaked and studied organisms in both the ocean and forest, and a rainforest in Costa Rica, which Sara calls the most biodiverse spot she’s ever witnessed.

“You’re staying in a lodge where it doesn’t get quiet for one second because of the amount of insects, birds and monkeys,” she says. “If you’re trying to find peace of mind, this is not the place.”

Sara received her certificate in 2013 and, when the partnership was established between Biomimicry 3.8 and ASU Online, was able to further her online education, graduating with her master’s in 2016. Alongside finishing the program, Sara was working in Egypt to find ways to use biomimicry to improve food and agricultural systems, one of her biggest areas of interest.

This past summer, Sara traded one desert climate for another when she moved from Cairo to Tempe, in order to pursue her doctorate in sustainability on campus.

“ASU is a very strong university for sustainability,” Sara says. “I was excited to come here given the similar climate, in order to see some of the innovations and solutions to food systems that have been created or are being created. The classes I’ve been taking have been adding a lot to the work I’ve been doing back home.”

In addition to her doctorate studies, Sara is a researcher at The Biomimicry Center.

“There’s quite a few ongoing projects that look at nature and creating sustainable design,” she explains. “I’m at a bit more of a theoretical level, looking at something called life’s principles, which are a guiding blueprint of how we can create a more sustainable world for ourselves inspired from the natural world. I’m working to compile more peer-reviewed research to support or refute some of these principles.”

By researching the chemistry of nature — whether that means its form or shape, the process of something that occurs naturally or an entire ecosystem — biomimicry aims to innovate in ways that are ultimately not as harmful as what we currently use to create a lot of things in our world today. Sara gives the example of an abalone shell, which consists of basic components that, through a calcification process, are formed into a very strong material.

“We can replicate that process and get a strong material to use as a building block rather than cement, which is toxic and polluting to the atmosphere,” Sara says. “The idea is to deconstruct and understand how the natural world uses life-friendly chemistry, then engineer or design from that.”

Biomimicry is not limited to emulating organisms, Ayla explains.

“There are three parts to deep and meaningful biomimicry research,” she says. “There’s emulation, or mimicking nature. Then there’s ethos, the ethics of what we do. We could develop an airplane that mimics birds and insects that fly efficiently, but if we use them to drop bombs or pollute environments then we’re not doing deep biomimicry because the organisms can do what they do without hurting their habitat. So the third piece is reconnecting — we need to remember our place in this world and that we’re a member of life on Earth. We need to fit in on Earth instead of trying to fit on Earth.”

Sara adds, “I think one of the main things that biomimicry showed me and shows a lot of people who go through the program is a very plausible and concrete way to still be the innovators we are and create technology and create the things we want, but in a context that fits in better on this planet. It gives you the path — of course, that means there is still a lot of work to be done, but at least it tells us that there is a way to get there.”

Learn more about Ayla’s career and work on her personal website.

Watch Sara’s TEDxWWF Talk.

Learn more about ASU Online’s Master of Science in Biomimicry program.

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