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Ant-patterned pillows cushion research, raise awareness for insects and biodiversity

December 6, 2018

Biomimicry 'Ant Man' touts insect ingenuity in pillow project

Clint Penick is feeling a little “antsy” about his new project — in the excited way one might feel about opening a holiday gift.

Penick, an ant aficionado and assistant research professor in the Biomimicry Center at Arizona State University, is offering a rare perspective of the insect kingdom’s plucky picnic pests — by way of pillow. Blending science with art for a practical finish, Penick and his fellow researchers have created a unique line of decorative cushions that reflect their affinity for ants, one he hopes will help raise awareness about the beauty and benefits of the tiny armies that service our ecosystems.

“I’ve looked at ants under microscopes for years, but I never paid much attention to the patterns on their bodies aside from using them to differentiate one species from another,” Penick said. “This all changed when I was teaching an undergraduate course on public health, and we started to wonder how ants with rough body patterns were able to clean themselves and stay free from pathogens. At the same time, we realized the ant patterns were beautiful and might be applied to design.”

That idea to amplify the sculptured patterns of ant exoskeletons was first hatched at North Carolina State University where Penick was working on postdoctoral research. Before bringing the research to ASU’s Biomimicry Center, Penick and two other scientists — Adrian Smith and Rob Dunn — recruited fabric designer Meredith West to translate ant patterns from a database of ant imagery into prints. With prints in hand, they have now produced a line of pillows available through the online company Threadless Artist Shops.

“We didn’t just want to have ants on a pillow,” Penick said. “We wanted the pattern to be more abstract, like how zebra stripes represent a zebra without showing the whole animal. We raided a collection of ants I had gathered from different places around the world to create this pillow line and the 'spiny ants' from the genus Polyrhachis that I gathered in Australia became the basis for our first pillow design.” 

Penick says the pillows represent a rare opportunity to access a science-art collaboration as a practical product that anybody can buy. Just in time for the holidays, the pillows are now available for purchase online under the brand name HolotypeA word to describe a single type specimen upon which the description and name of a new species is based., with sales proceeds going to support research efforts at ASU.

Through the Holotype ant pillow project, Penick and his team hope to raise awareness about the importance of biodiversity in our ecosystems. Pointing to the many benefits that stem from the variety and variability of life on Earth, Penick says protecting biodiversity should be held in the same regard as awareness about climate change and increasing urbanization.

“One thing that’s great about Arizona is that among the United States, we actually have the highest ant biodiversity,” Penick said. “It’s one of the reasons why we are doing research on antimicrobials produced by ants. A lot of human medicines come from natural products — especially plants, but insects represent promising sources as well. Biodiversity also helps to keep our ecosystems healthy and prevent invasive species from spreading.”

While largely overshadowed by more familiar species such as pandas, giraffes or rhinoceroses in the conversation about biodiversity, insects represent half of the two million species that have been described by scientists and are playing a significant role in maintaining and transforming our ecosystems. Penick points to research he has done on ants in dense cities like New York as an example.

In New York City’s famed theater district, ants eat the equivalent of 60,000 hot dogs per year in garbage waste that’s dropped on the ground.

“It turns out that ants can do quite well in cities,” he said. “There are somewhere over 8 million people living in New York City, but we estimate there are at least 16 billion ants — roughly 2,000 ants for every human living in New York City. And we know they can do a lot of beneficial things for people living in New York.”

Along the streets of Broadway, home to New York City’s famed theater district, Penick says ants are eating the equivalent of 60,000 hot dogs per year in garbage waste that’s dropped on the ground. He says ants have huge benefits to the city, cleaning up garbage as they navigate their way around the concrete jungle. And because they dig their nests underground, Penick says ants turn as much or more soil than earthworms, so they are really important in aerating the soil. He also says ants eat a lot of invasive pest species, serving as combatants for trees that might be under attack.

Penick says he hopes his research and pillow project will get people to pay attention to the positive aspects of insects and to think about these tiny species as beautiful and beneficial to society. 

The Holotype ant pillows are ready-made for order online. Identified by ant genus and species in binomial nomenclature, the pillows retail for about $30 each and are available in 16 different patterns and various sizes. Science lovers and ant enthusiasts can also collect the Holotype ant patterns as fine art prints or stretched canvas. Learn more at holotype.threadless.com.

Top photo: Swatch samples of the Holotype ant patterns. Photo courtesy Clint Penick.

Media Relations Officer , Media Relations & Strategic Communications

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PhD graduate trades aerospace manufacturing business for career with cellular machinery

Grad seeks the unfamiliar to chart a new future in research


December 6, 2018

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for fall 2018 commencement. Read about more graduates

Reed Bjorklund has spent the majority of his adult life working as the successful owner and operator of a precision aerospace manufacturing business. As an innovator, he wanted to pursue new ideas in machining and fabrication, in addition to his work in the aerospace industry. George Reed Bjorklund George Reed Bjorklund graduated from ASU's School of Life Sciences with his PhD in molecular and cellular biology. After building a successful aerospace manufacturing business, he left it behind to pursue a formal education — finally landing in developmental neuroscience research. Photo: Reed Bjorklund Download Full Image

So, he decided to sell his business, go back to school and earn a formal degree. At the time, engineering seemed like the right fit. He started taking a variety of courses at Arizona State University and tried out a few to see how he and school would "get along." Little did he know an introductory course on cellular biology was about to change his life.

“Sitting in class, I was staring at a cutaway depiction of a cell and marveling at the intricacies of the cellular machinery. All those processes working in coordination with one another towards many small objectives that all coalesce into ever larger processes and objectives is incredible,” said Bjorklund. “Sounds a little flaky maybe, but I saw in that cell the most complicated and yet coordinated little factory that I could ever imagine. That is probably the point where I did a 180 and got a little serious about the biological sciences.”   

Bjorklund’s fascination with the machinery inside each cell, as well as with cellular systems, pushed him down a path to study developmental neuroscience for his dissertation and earn his PhD in molecular and cellular biology from the School of Life Sciences

“In my previous life, I owned Az-Tech Manufacturing Inc. We specialized in research and development and product manufacturing for the aerospace industry. We manufactured components for satellites, the space shuttles and the International Space Station for Honeywell SSO; turbine engine parts and assemblies for Allied Signal Aerospace, General Electric, and British Aerospace; rocket engine valves and bodies for TRW Aerospace; and a lot of other cool stuff for other customers,” said Bjorklund.

“But school kind of changed those plans. So, for better or worse, here I am at ASU in a field that is just a little different than what I have previously done. I believe most people thought I was crazy or stupid to give up a lucrative career for a path that was totally foreign. But the further things went in my academic career, the more my family and friends got on board with it. Now that I have actually finished, there has been a collective sigh of relief from my family, especially my wife and kids,” he said.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in? 

Answer: I didn’t plan on studying anything in the field of biology when I first went to college. I had just sold my business and was wondering what I would do with all my new free time. I had always wanted to go to school and this seemed like the perfect time to do that. I am a “nontraditional” student. That is, I would be entering college later in life than a traditional student would.

My plan was to pursue a formal degree in mechanical engineering since I had spent most of my life in precision machining and manufacturing. So, to begin, I thought I would take a few “test” classes to see how school and I would get along together. One of those classes was an intro cellular biology course and that changed my educational focus.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: The ability to ignore the noise and stay on my path. Since becoming serious about an education, I have run across almost every reason imaginable to just give up. However, learning to deal with myself rather than the noise surrounding me, I have accomplished, so far, what I have set out to do.

I very rarely quote someone, but (Winston) Churchill said, “You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.” I still stop and throw stones occasionally — old habits die hard — but not nearly as many as I used to.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I grew up in Florence, a small town in Arizona, during the ASU Frank Kush years. I remember growing up with a LOT of talk about ASU, Frank Kush, ASU football, ASU football with Frank Kush and so on. Maybe that’s one of those things you need to experience, but it sure made ASU stand out as the place to be. Plus, I now live a few miles from here. 

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: To me, it isn’t about just one professor teaching the “most” important lesson, but rather a succession of professors that I have learned from over the years. Every professor seemed to offer a little extra something I could learn other than just the material of the course.

Like learning to do what you love from the professor that teaches with an unbelievable enthusiasm for the subject. Or learning to be knowledgeable in your chosen subject from the professor that could double as a walking encyclopedia. Or learning to care for your students like the professor that can’t stand to see one of their students fall behind. Or learning that everything isn’t as it seems from the professor that blows your mind with an alternative take on a subject.

There are a lot of different professors that have been involved in my education and what I have learned from each, good or bad, adds up to all the most important things.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Seek out something unfamiliar to you. Try a different subject that is outside your current interests. Make a new friend that is outside your current circle. Go on an adventure, near or far, short or long, it doesn’t matter. Overall, just keep an open mind and experience all you can while you can.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: The Design and Arts Library at the College of Design North was my favorite place to relax and study. Very nice and quiet library  — I hope I didn’t just ruin it. As an added bonus, there is an outdoor patio on the second floor of the building that is nice to hang out in also.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: Rest. Then back to work doing a postdoc stint here at ASU. After that, I’ve been saying for most of life that I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up and that is still true today. There are so many different areas and opportunities that interest me, it is hard to settle down and chose a definite path. That might be a bit obvious since I have gone from manufacturing parts for the International Space Station, satellites, turbine and rocket engines to studying and analyzing neurodevelopmental disorders in mammalian systems. So, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what opportunities or interests present themselves in the future. 

If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I don’t think $40 million dollars would go very far to tackle any one single problem facing the world. I think I would just have to blow it all on beer and late nights out.

Seriously, though, I think that some of the most pressing issues we face are environmental. Climate change, drought, pollution, and the loss of habitat and biodiversity are just a few of the most immediate challenges that face us. These points of concern are up to every one of us, individually and together, to tackle. Towards that, I would think the most bang for the buck that $40 million would bring is education. We all need to know the consequences of our immediate actions and inactions and just where that is currently leading us. Before we can fix our world’s problems, if it is even possible, we need to fix ourselves.

Q: What’s something you are most proud of during your time at ASU?

A: That I lasted. At times it seemed like a battle of wills, me against everything else. Kind of dramatic, maybe, but sometimes it felt that way. In the end, however, I was able to jump all the hurdles, circumnavigate the obstacles and dodge the rest to come out the other side ready to keep on going. 

Sandra Leander

Manager, Media Relations and Marketing, School of Life Sciences

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