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Exploring the Frontiers of Art and Biotechnology
Chou Chiao chi, a graduate student studying biotechnology and art at NTHU, has designed a globe-like device which rotates 360 degrees to control the angle of light in such a way that pea seedlings are made to grow in various shapes, including triangles, spirals, and even heart-shaped patterns. The process is called “biosignal cybernation,” and the device has recently been exhibited at the Ars Electronica event in Linz, Austria.
 
The 22-year-old Chou is a first-year student in the Interdisciplinary and International Master’s program. She developed the process in collaboration with her university classmate Hu Youyang, working under the team name “Y2K.”They were the youngest Taiwanese participants at Ars Electronica.
 
First held in 1979, the Ars Electronica festival is known as the “Oscars of Science and Technology.” This year's theme was “Out of the Box: The Midlife Crisis of the Digital Revolution,” and the event attracted thousands of talented participants from around the world. What made Y2K’s entry stand out was its unique combination of electronic art and biotechnology.
 
A bright idea born of a chance conversation
 
In addition to biotechnology, Chou is also good at woodwork and machine fabrication, while Hu’s specialty is computer programming, such that their respective talents perfectly complement one another.
 
Chou said that the inspiration for biosignal cybernation came from a conversation she and Hu had when they were riding on a bus. They were chatting about how Japanese farmers have been using molds to grow square watermelons, and they began to wonder if it might be possible to sculpt the shape of a plant without the help of molds and wires, but rather by controlling the light it receives. They soon hit upon the idea of mounting a sphere on a frame so that it can rotate 360 degrees, with an electric light mounted above; a pea seedling is placed inside the sphere and a computer program precisely controls the direction of the light it receives.
 
In order to determine the growth pattern of peas, Hu took a picture of the pea seedling every 5 minutes and used artificial intelligence to analyze the data. Based on the results, they developed a three-axis motor which rotates the pea seedlings at regular intervals, so as to control its growth in a preset direction.
 
They chose to use pea seedlings because they grow fast. With 16 hours of daily sunlight, a pea seedling will grow between 0.6 and 1.0 centimeter every day, so that most shapes can be completed in about ten days. Chou likens the instrument to a 3D printer for plants; all you have to do is draw a pattern and enter it into the computer, and the plant will grow in practically any shape you want. The shapes they have already successfully made include triangles, squares, diamonds, pentagons, and hexagons. The device uses a waving red light to make the peas grow with longer stems and shorter leaves.
 
A serendipitous invitation
 
The invitation to participate in Ars Electronica came quite unexpectedly. In February of this year Chou and Hu went to Japan to participate in the YouFab Global Creative Awards. Amongst the jury was Gerfried Stocker, who is also one of the directors of Ars Electronica, and he was so impressed with Biosignal Cybernation that he wrote it up in a review. As a result, much to their surprise, late one night in May Chou and Hu received an e-mail inviting them to participate in Ars Electronica.
 
With guidance from Professor Li Chia-wei of the Department of Life Sciences and technical support from classmate Lin Ziyang, Chou prepared pea seedling specimens of various shapes using a process which includes soaking the seedlings in a copper-infused solution to replace the easily lost magnesium ions in the plant chlorophyll. The result is a lifelike specimen which preserves the original color.
 
Prof. Li said that he hasn’t accepted any new graduate students in the past few years because he is preparing to retire, but he was so impressed with Chou's enthusiasm and talent that he decided to make an exception. Although phototropism (the growth of an organism in response to a light stimulus) has been well known for a long time, “Who would have thought of using it to create art?” said Li with obvious admiration.
 
Interdisciplinary studies at NTHU
 
Chou is amongst the first batch of students in NTHU’s Interdisciplinary and International Master’s and Doctoral Program; she has advisors in both the College of Life Science and the College of Arts.
 
Prof. Li Ruiguang, director of the new interdisciplinary program, said that the doctoral program was established in 2015 as the first of its kind in Taiwan, and in 2017 a master’s program was added. Drawing on the resources of all the colleges at NTHU, students in the program design their own coursework and choose their own advisors. Amongst the other students currently in the program are one combining medicine and big data, and another working on design and the human-machine interface. There are currently 85 doctoral students in the program.
 
Prof. Tao Ya-lun of the College of Arts said that NTHU has always been strong in science and engineering, so there are lots of resources and support available for students with a background in art to combine their existing specialization with such fields as biotechnology, information engineering, machinery, and chemical engineering.
 

Chou Chiao-chi (left) and Hu Youyang with their device for growing plants into various shapes.

Chou Chiao-chi (left) and Hu Youyang with their device for growing plants into various shapes.


The process is called “biosignal cybernation,” and uses phototropism to control the shape in which a plant grows.

The process is called “biosignal cybernation,” and uses phototropism to control the shape in which a plant grows.


Chou placing a pea seedling inside the device.

Chou placing a pea seedling inside the device.


Chou and Hu form a synergistic team, often finding new ideas while chatting.

Chou and Hu form a synergistic team, often finding new ideas while chatting.


Professor Lee Ray-kuang of the Institute of Photonics Technologies is also the director of the Interdisciplinary and International Master’s and Doctoral Program.

Professor Lee Ray-kuang of the Institute of Photonics Technologies is also the director of the Interdisciplinary and International Master’s and Doctoral Program.


Lin Ziyang (right) of the College of Life Science taught Chou how to prepare specimens.

Lin Ziyang (right) of the College of Life Science taught Chou how to prepare specimens.

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