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Legitimate Mutants

The projects sound fantastical: urban beehives collecting microbes to be genetically sequenced and rendered for an exhibition at the Venice Architecture Biennale; a mobile application that monitors every move of the user in order to connect two strangers on earth for 20 days; an open-source system for education that blurs the lines between science and art.
But these are all real ventures designed by Cooper Union graduates in various roles at the MIT Media Lab, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. To Professor Kevin Slavin A’95, it comes as no surprise that he, Kim Holleman A’95 and Devora Najjar ChE’16 found their way there, taking on projects that defy traditional categories of academic research; “the Media Lab looks to attract mutants that live between art, engineering, design and science,” he says. “Cooper Union produces some of those mutants.”
The MIT Media Lab, which opened in 1985, acts as both a research facility and a degree-granting institute. Rooted in using technology to positively affect how we live, it has been behind many advances across a spectrum of industries and disciplines. Products that incorporate aspects of Media Lab research include the e-ink used in the Amazon Kindle, MPEG-4 Structured Audio, Seat Sentry sensors for airbags, optigenetics, BiOM—a lower-leg system for amputees—and the Guitar Hero video game series, among dozens of others.
The Media Lab currently consists of 27 research groups, including Playful Systems, founded and led by Kevin Slavin, who is also an assistant professor of media arts and sciences at MIT. The goal of Playful Systems is to build narratives, games and stories to make complex systems visible, as opposed to reinforcing the unseen networks (financial, technological and even ecological systems) that gird much of our world. As the group’s website puts it, “Playful systems embrace complexity rather than conceal it, and seek to delight, not disappear.”
He uses the example of Pokémon Go to describe how digital and physical worlds are fully enmeshed in 2016. In the wildly popular mobile game, you must travel to physical destinations in order to capture and battle digital monsters through an app on your phone. It draws on 20 years of research in location-based games, a field in which Slavin is a pioneer. “To design or deploy something along those lines, you wouldn’t go to architecture school and you wouldn’t go to a game-design practice. The action is in the spaces between them,” Professor Slavin says. But for Slavin, games are not the ends in themselves: he believes that the lens of play instigates curiosity about the underlying structure of any system, such as neurology or electronic networks.
Among the projects researched in Slavin’s lab, several themes reoccur: the mediation of time by technology; the relationship between the physical and the digital; and ways to reveal our cities and people around us. In the prototype for the game “Case and Molly” (created with Greg Borenstein), one player moves through physical space using a smartphone while the other experiences her point of view using a virtual-reality headset and transmits pieces of information to help her navigate her way. “Tools for Super-Human Time Perception,” a project of Slavin’s student Che-Wei Wang, suggests that if a diminished sense of time indicates a brain disorder, tools designed to increase time perception could reverse that condition. Slavin’s lab has collaborated with other research groups as varied as the Weill Cornell Center for Physiology and Biophysics and the MIT Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values.
For “Holobiont Urbanism: Revealing the Microbiological World of Cities,” Slavin and his research assistant Miguel Perez pioneered the technique and practice of sequencing urban metagenomic data from genetic material gleaned from beehives in Sydney, Venice and Brooklyn. Devora Najjar, a recently graduated chemical engineer, joined the project while still a Cooper Union senior in 2015, playing a crucial role in its success.
Najjar met Slavin when she served as The Cooper Union’s first student representative to the board of trustees, where Kevin Slavin serves as an alumni trustee and vice chair of the board. “Devora is the kind of legitimate mutant we need,” he says, by way of complimenting her enormous intellectual curiosity, which spans several disciplines. He suggested to her that she join the Holobiant Urbanism project team. Her work extracting and sequencing the DNA of beehive biomes culminated with an exhibition in the 2016 Venice Biennale in which Slavin’s team created urban microbiological landscapes. The exhibition included a functioning beehive at the Palazzo Mora, along with visualizations of the data the bees were providing.

Najjar decided to pursue graduate studies at the Media Lab, applying to Professor Kevin Esvelt’s Sculpting Evolution Group, where she’ll work on a project that proposes using genetic modification to control Lyme disease. Mice, the primary “reservoir” of the bacterium causing the disease in the Northeast (passing it on to ticks that then bite humans) would be genetically immunized against the disease. The experiment will be rigorously tested in a controlled environment, and then, if successful, brought to Nantucket. The group met with residents of Nantucket, where 40 percent of the population has suffered from the disease, to gauge public interest and concern. “We are trying to create projects that are very community-oriented and consensusdriven with a focus on education and engagement with parties who are going to be affected by these projects,” Najjar says. “We’re trying to open up the conversation that genetic modification isn’t an evil thing, it’s a tool that can be used for good or for bad.”
What is particularly fascinating for Najjar is the notion of a “gene drive,” a mechanism that secures the heritability of a genetic modification, making the impact of that alteration greater in the ecosystem. “This is the first time ever that we have the possibility of modifying wild populations. With other techniques, the genetic edit effectively fades away due to decreased fitness,” she says. Professor Esvelt’s lab is also working on ways to control the number of generations in which modifications continue and how to reverse or end those alterations.
Kim Holleman also works with the Media Lab, as a research affiliate in the Social Computing Group, dedicated to “creating sociotechnical systems that shape our urban environments.” Holleman’s art forcefully advocates for making the natural world an integral part of education and people’s daily lives, city dwellers included: “What I do is design with nature, such that when you enter one of my spaces, you feel as if you are transported into a new kind of natural surrounding, fused with architectural and interior design features—all of which coincide and harmonize to create a living, breathing immersive environment,” she says.
A perfect example is her 2006-12 work Trailer Park, made of a 1984 Coachman Travel Trailer with the interior converted into a mobile park fitted with brick pavers, a tiny pond and planting beds filled with grasses and perennials. Skylights are cut into the roof. Holleman chose not to cover them with glass so that, like any outdoor space, rain and snow are part of the mix. It has no doors, so it is accessible 24 hours a day. Visitors can sit among the plants, rest or gaze at the tiny fish in the pond. Holleman parks the trailer at different sites and leaves it there for days at a time. In 2012, the trailer was parked outside 41 Cooper Square during the exhibition Rites of Passage. On that occasion, Holleman gave a TEDx talk in the Frederick P. Rose Auditorium in which she described a note she found in the Trailer Park guest book: one Alex wrote, “If every neighborhood had one of these, crime would go down.” That remark was particularly meaningful to Holleman, who created the project to underscore the need for natural space and the degree to which we tend to ignore that necessity.

Holleman’s work came to the attention of Professor Sep Kamvar, who leads the Social Computing Group at the Media Lab. “He was looking for an interior architect for a new kind of school,” she says of their meeting. “Sep had followed my work and wanted his vision for schools to contain and evoke the living natural world,” she adds. The Media Lab gave her what she calls “the perfect opportunity to create interdisciplinary work in service of a very important goal.”
Holleman designs and builds the schools in the Wildflower Montessori Network, an open-source blueprint for creating schools that build on the ideas of the renowned Italian educator, who argued that tactility and making were essential to real learning. Holleman designs interiors “for children driven by passion to learn and interact with everyone and everything around them on multiple levels at once.” She’s careful to construct interiors filled with natural elements as well as LEED-standard ones, a skill she gained by taking courses offered by Cooper’s continuing education department, earning a certificate in green construction. “Every single choice is natural or ‘green,’” she says.
She thinks her time at Cooper made the transition to the Media Lab a natural one: “The ability to be aggressively interdisciplinary, as well as quirky but smart, has really only been helpful at places like Cooper Union and MIT Media Lab, where doing unique, complicated projects is the norm.”
Kevin Slavin sees a similar thread between the work of Cooper and that of the Media Lab. As a trustee, Slavin would like to see more opportunities for students to study in the liminal spaces outside discrete subject areas. “Most people at Cooper recognize that there’s an opportunity that’s unique, one that’s not been taken advantage of in the past: interactions among the three schools. But it requires a certain vision and leadership that we haven’t seen yet,” he says.
But Holleman thinks that Cooper has that sort of integration already: “I truly feel the perfect balance of art, architecture and engineering at Cooper Union—and having to contemplate that relationship while at Cooper Union has helped me understand the greater connection among fields and the exciting places where more than two or three or four fields overlap. That is the most exciting thing of all to me—to make work in an area where most people would say, ‘Well, that’s not really possible.’ That is what people used to say about joining wet nature with dry architecture, but I’ve been finding new and exciting applications for just that for many years now.”