Right Turn: Andrew Pelling Redux

Author: Stacey Johnson, 08/12/16
Credit: Stacey Johnson

Credit: Stacey Johnson

Andrew Pelling is a self-described biohacker (and also the Canada research chair in experimental cell mechanics at the University of Ottawa) who makes ears out of apples and sees inspiration all around him – but science fiction (The Matrix, Little Shop of Horrors) is his favourite muse.

On August 10, Dr. Pelling was the keynote speaker for the University of Toronto’s Undergraduate Summer Research Program, run by the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering (IBBME). Having blogged about his fascinating work, I made the time to go listen to him in person. I am glad I did.

He was introduced as a “disruptive and transformative change maker,” which he definitely is. (It would be interesting to learn what Health Canada thinks about his unorthodox work and methods.) Dr. Pelling also comes across as committed to mentoring young scientists – an ideal guest for this audience – and his enthusiasm and fearlessness was infectious and inspiring.

His work is being profiled on Signals because he’s developing novel methods for creating organs and scaffolds – he just happens to be using fruit and vegetables.

The other element of his work that is special – and fits a theme on Signals – is marrying science, technology, engineering and math with art. While we’ve covered STEM many times, STEAM is now gaining prominence as an educational focus and it appears that Dr. Pelling has embraced this notion for a while now as he includes artists in his lab. Back in 2005, his “Dark Side of the Cell” – an audio presentation of yeast cells “singing” – was selected as a Top 50 media art piece in an international competition in Germany.

During the Q&A portion after his talk, Dr. Pelling shared a photo of biotextile experimentation happening in his lab. WhiteFeather Hunter is creating “new, aestheticized vital specimens through hands-on tissue engineering.”

Andrew Pelling lab biotextile

An audience member asked if there’s any question he would reject given that Dr. Pelling said he likes to investigate questions without answers. He replied that the physical laws of nature still apply. “We’re still scientists.”

He joked that his success rate is probably about 2 percent, but followed this by saying “if you’re not failing, you’re not learning.” And he typically learns a great deal from each experiment, regardless of the outcome. That’s motivating and useful for a room full of future scientists to know.

I asked a U of T engineering prof who attended the talk how scientists react to Dr. Pelling’s unconventional projects. This person diplomatically replied: “I admire the multi-disciplinary nature of his work.”

Still curious? Read IBBME’s storify of the event below. You can read all of Wednesday’s tweets by using the hashtags #Pelling and #USRP2016 (remember to click “live” at the top of the page).

Our regular feature, Right Turn, appears every Friday and we invite you to submit your own blog to info(at)ccrm.ca. We encourage you to be creative and use the right (!) side of your brain. We dare you to make us laugh! Right Turn features cartoons, photos, videos and other content to amuse, educate and encourage discussion.

As always, we welcome your feedback in the comment section.

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Stacey Johnson

Stacey Johnson

For almost 20 years, Stacey has been providing strategic communications counsel to government, corporate, technology and health organizations. Prior to that, Stacey was at the CTV Television Network, first as a researcher, then as a story producer for “Goldhawk Fights Back,” a special ombudsman segment that aired weekly on the National News and Canada AM. Before joining CCRM as the Director, Communications and Marketing, Stacey was the Director of Communications for the Canadian Arthritis Network. Stacey is editor of Signals. You can follow Stacey on Twitter @msstaceyerin.
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