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A Celebration of Silk

A Celebration of SilkMembers of the Tufts biomedical engineering department show their lighter side as they take an artistic approach to their research in silk.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [08.24.09] If the image of Michael Jackson moon walking doesn't make you think of silk-making, you clearly are not a member of Tufts' biomedical engineering (BME) department.

This July researchers from the department were asked to give the left side of their brain a rest and try their right side on for size as they presented their silk research in artistic form.

"The results underscored the fact that creativity is alive and well," say both Department Chair and Professor David Kaplan, who coordinated the event with Professor Fiorenzo Omenetto.

"The study of silk is an active area of research in the biomedical engineering department and beyond at Tufts," Omenetto says. "Silk has been used in applications that range from tissue engineering, to drug delivery, to optics and photonics and involves dozens of researchers, undergraduate to faculty, in BME and many others beyond the department and around the world."

Split into art and video contests, the competition's winning pieces included silk flowers from postdoctoral associate Amanda Murphy, a vascular tree from postdoctoral associate Mike Lovett and a silk processing video that Omenetto says has "redefined silk-making for the entire department."

Video creators Tim Lo, a BME research assistant, and Gary Leisk, a senior lecturer in the mechanical engineering department, made silk cocoons come to life in their video, "Cocoon Silk 5," which found its inspiration in the Michael Jackson hit "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough."

"While eating lunch, Tim and I were joking that a cute video could be made if we had silkworm cocoons doing the processing," Leisk says. "I was originally supposed to buy small bulging eyes from Mr. Potato Head sets but could only find large ones, so we decided to hand-make everything using cocoons, a Sharpie marker, and small lengths of wire."

Clearing off their lab desks, the two went to work gathering all the necessities for the production-cocoons, a box, a water tank, a beaker, tubing and a flashlight

Setting up a digital camera on a tripod, they used stop-motion photography, capturing one scene per second.

"We are both fans of Michael Jackson music," Leisk says, noting it was pure coincidence that they chose his music right before his death. "We decided on 'Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough' because it has a strong beat every second."

Leisk says originally they planned for the cocoons to position all of the silk material and tools properly to demonstrate the process. But when one of the cocoons accidentally dropped into their simulated lithium bromide pool, they decided the video could be about the Cocoon Silk 5 trying to remake one of the team.

Each of the cocoons in the video was modeled after a member of the BME department including Kaplan, Omenetto and their fellow researchers.

"The final 10 seconds of the video shows the five cocoons and a flying David Kaplan in a Superman outfit, which is supposed to be S for Silkman," Leisk says. "Tim added this extra feature, I think to get a strong vote from David, the lead judge in the competition."

Leisk adds, "The Cocoon Silk 5 are now in a display case in the Science and Technology building. We're thinking about a follow-up film, but haven't decided on the topic yet."

"We could not be more pleased with the outcome and the remarkable creativity among the silk team. We cannot wait to see what will happen next year," says Kaplan.

Story by Kaitlin Provencher, Web Communications.


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