Bioenergetics project promotes education, public health

September 22, 2014. Under the watchful eye of their primary project leader, Shilpa Iyer, Ph.D., a passionate team of eight artists and eight engineers are joining forces to undertake a clever approach to interdisciplinary research. Their project, “Bioenergetics: Arts Meets Gentle Science in Sickness and in Health,” supported by the VCU Quest Innovation Fund, is the first of its kind to blend visual arts and engineering in the construction of interactive modules used to explain bioenergetics to children and their families.

A subset of life science research concerned with the flow of energy through living systems, bioenergetics is an important teaching point for children who suffer from energy problems related to nutrition and mitochondria. “Nearly forty percent of all children have energy problems,” said Iyer. “The problem causes extreme fatigue and lack of energy, taking twenty percent more energy to do a task per day. It’s a problem that affects every part of your life. We want to do something to benefit sick children and healthy children alike.”

Out of forty applicants to the summer program, sixteen VCU students were selected to put their skill sets to work in creating everything from a mitochondria teaching tool disguised as a plush toy to an interactive electronic game that showcases the important steps in the process that mitochondria use to make energy. These tactile prototypes and artistic renderings not only answer the urgent call of energy deficient children and their families, but they also serve to provide VCU students with an invaluable non-linear educational experience.

“I joined the bioenergetics program out of curiosity and want to express my talents that I felt were hidden in the classroom/lecture setting,” said biomedical engineering junior Kevin Ball. “It's not that we are thinking in a new way; we're just channeling the way we think in a different direction because we have a bottomless pit of knowledge and learning available.” Through interactions with Sarah Faris, M.A., and Raj Rao, Ph.D., Iyer attested to the benefits of structuring the Bioenergetics project as more of a continuous in-depth communication across disciplines than a lecture focused on topics within a single discipline.

For its members, the project has been eye opening with regards to how much can be accomplished through interdisciplinary collaborations. Scientific Illustration major Caroline Bivens pondered the possibilities of such collaboration. “Renaissance thinkers set the tone by emphasizing a thorough understanding of philosophy, language, arithmetic, art, science and engineering,” she said. “Were they achieving these educational feats simply for the purpose of being ‘well rounded?'” wondered Bivens. “Or, perhaps, they practiced something that we have forgotten.”

Soon, the public will be able to ask itself the same question when the bioenergetics project is featured at the Science Museum of Virginia from March through May 2015. Currently the students are still creating displays and engaged in the prototyping process; however, beta testing will begin this October.

“I believe we can change education with opportunities like Dr. Iyer’s bioenergetics project,” said Ball. “A sense of community was established, not only in the people I met throughout the internship, but in that we were doing something for the good of humanity.”

Already, the bioenergetics team is preparing for its next round of collaborative projects. Iyer speculates that her students may choose to target any of a wealth of demographics to focus their next endeavors—perhaps sports, aging, or diabetes. Ball responded on the sheer capabilities of their interdisciplinary work, saying, “A culmination of concurrent projects like Bioenergetics could be substantial and changing for VCU, Richmond, and modern education.”

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