Last semester, four Illinois State students and their professor took advantage of virtual collaboration to perfect a project that they presented before an international audience.

Their project posed an unusual solution to treating severe burns—bandages made of fish skin.

Kasey Hayes, Spencer Cadman, Julia Schuler, and Hanna Kim all graduated in May with degrees in graphic design. For one of their final undergraduate courses at Illinois State, they elected to take Biodesign under the guidance of Devon Ward, instructional assistant professor in the Wonsook Kim School of Art.

Biodesign is a growing field that utilizes design to create new products. Often, biodesign aims to improve sustainability. Ward credits Michael Wille, director of the Wonsook Kim School of Art, for making the course possible. The spring semester was the first time the course had been offered at Illinois State, making the four students the first ever Redbirds to participate in the Biodesign Challenge.

“The challenge is a way to promote this emerging field of biodesign in the form of a competition that encourages universities from around the country and around the world to participate,” said Ward. “They provide pedagogical resources, readings, feedback from other teachers, and examples of past projects. Then, the students will adapt it to their own means.”

During the first half of the semester, the 10 students in the class each developed their own ideas. After spring break and the subsequent shelter-in-place order, Hayes, Cadman, Schuler, and Kim grouped together virtually and worked on their idea of Xenobass. According to the group’s website, “Xenobass is a new biological design that uses skin from largemouth bass to treat severe burns.”

A model of Xenobass

A model of Xenobass

The group developed their concept after researching the use of tilapia skin bandages to treat burn victims in Brazil. Their research found that the bandages have been successful in Brazil over the past three years. Fish skin bandages are effective for treating burn victims because they contain high concentrations of collagen, which promotes skin growth.

The four students studied graphic design at Illinois State, but their project required them to delve deeper into science than they ever had before. “I went into it not knowing anything about biodesign,” said Kim. “But I think the more you are excited about it, the more open you are to putting forth effort and enjoying it.”

While the challenges brought on by the coronavirus (COVID-19) could have slowed the group down, they utilized their extra time at home to prepare their project for the Biodesign Challenge. “One of the students actually went out fishing and caught bass to create a prototype. That was the level of dedication I hadn’t really expected,” said Ward.

Typically, the Biodesign Challenge is hosted at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City—a factor that initially inspired the group to work toward the event. However, social distancing requirements moved the event to a Zoom setting. From June 15–19, the Biodesign Challenge was streamed live as students presented their projects and answered questions from the judges. While the students presented to an international audience from the comfort of their own homes, the online setting required them to overcome communication barriers.

“It required the extra problem-solving of having to switch gears to online presentation because you definitely have to navigate differently,” said Schuler. “You really have to know what you’re saying and how you’re saying it, because there’s no real body language involved.”

The group advanced to the round of finalists and felt a sense of fulfillment after presenting before the Biodesign Challenge judges. At the beginning of the spring semester, they struggled to see themselves succeeding in such a scientific setting.

“At the beginning of the class, I definitely struggled,” said Hayes. “Once I gave it all my effort and put in 110 percent, I got so much out of it.”

Biodesign showcases the coalescence between design and science. “All of the students in the class were graphic design majors,” said Ward. “They were engaging across disciplines in an area that was foreign and unknown to them. Even if they had a general knowledge, they’re getting into the specifics of how collagen affects tissue growth and development, which is very far outside of their traditional boundaries.”

The group of students note that as long as you have an open mind and a passion for learning, you can succeed in the multidisciplinary class.

“I learned so much not only in graphic design, but also in science,” said Hayes. “It was a really great experience.”