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An “Epic” Collaboration Through the World of Analogies and Humor

Teach Epic #41

Ulf Gehrmann, PhD, scientist, Institute Curie, Paris, France

Nancy Volpe Beringer, designer, Drexel University, Philadelphia; fashion designer graduate student

Welcome to Team Epic’s entrée into the language of analogies and the world of comedy. Who knew that the collaboration between a scientist and designer could also lead to a journey filled with so many laughable moments?

First, full disclosure by the designer: I was the kind of student who always looked at the alternative science curriculum to avoid even the most basic courses of biology and chemistry. I thought I was home free until Ulf Gerhmann hit the lottery and got paired with non other than me. Fortunately, I did know that genes were not something you wear and DNA was not the latest designer label.

That said, imagine how our first Skype call went as I tried to understand his field of study into epigenetics and oral tolerance. The call required the best from both of us: Ulf utilized his patience and then some more patience as I asked and re-asked questions about his research. My business skills were also put to the test as I ferociously tried to take sensible notes.

All in all, I thought our first connection between Paris and Philadelphia went quite well. I was rather proud of myself for asking what I thought were sophisticated questions. As our call ended, Ulf said that he would send me a link that he thought would be helpful. Now imagine my surprise when I opened a link to find a child’s book on immunology … so much for thinking my questions were at a high level. And so began our supportive and humorous collaboration.

At first glance, his research seemed basic enough for me to understand. Babies develop their immune system based on their environment such as through a mother’s breast milk and also through things they might put in their mouths and/or ingest. Well, that explanation might have been good enough for the fashion designer to start her work; but then I was brought back to reality. As Ulf enthusiastically described his research, I was quickly reminded that this project is called the Descience Fashion project for a reason. Back to the science classroom I had so successfully avoided.

When Ulf got into epigenetics and its relationship to oral tolerance and started talking about open DNA, accessible genes, microscopic changes, my eyes got bleary and each word sounded like the next. I knew I was in trouble.

Lucky for me, Ulf’s compassionate manner and sense of humor immediately and continues to put me at ease during our conversations. Besides being a brilliant scientist, Ulf is also great at analogies.

While trying to understand oral tolerance, he helped me equate the difference between active and inactive cells by visualizing a light switch turning on and off. The simple visualization also turned on the light for me. I believe it was at that moment that “descience” was brought to life as the scientist created a scenario for the designer to envision. I now felt I could start to translate his research into fashion.

Slowly, I began to grasp his explanation and relationship of oral tolerance and epigenetics. Just like a light switch can change between an off (inactive state) and on (active state), epigenetics regulates the activity of our genes by changing their accessibility for proteins from inactive to active. It is during oral tolerance that the child’s immune cells learn which substances are harmless environmental agents and should not elicit an immune response. Thus, the light switch can remain in its “off” position. And then there are cells that recognize dangerous bacteria and will start an immune response. This requires the light switch to be in its “on” position.

This understanding brought about our concept for a stitch and structure technique for our bolero. The bolero with its tight patterning of more than 80 repetitive conical shapes represents the inaccessible DNA and inactive cells. While it has taken well over 100 hours and 80 bobbins of thread to create the piece, it was worth every minute after hearing Ulf say, “Wow, I really see epigenetics when I look at your design.”

The loosely arranged felted roving and yarn trim on the boned corselet took on the role of active genes that have “open” DNA that is accessible (otherwise, the switch is in the “on” position.)

As the process and design continued, so did the helpful analogies. His comparison of the important role of the gut in oral tolerance and how it might resemble a bursting star throughout the body let us to design a supplemental child’s look to further explain his research. We decided on a whimsical, multi-colored child’s look, appliqued with immune cells and trimmed with DNA and actives genes exploding out of the gut, to portrays the underdeveloped immune system and important role of the gut in the process of oral tolerance.

Once again, “descience” was experienced. Just as I had begun to slightly feel comfortable in the world of science, Ulf’s took on an elevated role into the fashion design aspect of the project. He suggested designing the extremity and the torso in different colors, each representing a fundamental, yet raw and unstructured, component of the immune system. The process of oral tolerance orders the colors and gives structure to the immune components, arranging them in an intricate network that eventually covers the entire body.

And the good news is that I finally found a suitable way to showcase the gut. I felted the organs of the gut and appliqued it as the centerpiece of the child’s leotard. I even applied my newfound knowledge of oral tolerance. I went out into the environment and pulverized some sample objects such as grass, leaves, and dirt that a baby might have ingested and felted the pulverized pieces into the stomach. What fun!

So as you can see, the laughter was not all one sided. I had my share of smiles when listening to Ulf navigate the world of fashion. Our most entertaining calls were always the ones when we would temporarily try to switch roles of designer and scientist. This usually resulted in a few laughs. But the good news is that our calls always end up helping us to get one step closer to creating our epic AND scientific runway look.

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