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Resisting Categorization to Ask Big Questions

rachel-small.jpgRachel Armstrong defies categorization. Trained as a physician, Armstrong practiced medicine for about 6 years before leaving to work in pharmaceutical communications and to pursue artistic collaborations. Now a teaching fellow at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London, she was a 2009 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Global Fellow, where her talk centered on her current work on “metabolic materials” to solve architectural challenges — such as growing a synthetic reef under Venice to save it from rising water levels.

So, it’s next to impossible to describe what she does in a few words — and that’s deliberate: “Once you start becoming categorized, you start restricting your available options to solve problems,” she told an audience at the Wellcome Collection in London earlier this month.

The work she does now is part synthetic biology, part chemistry, part architecture, all with a healthy dose of creativity: “I’m driven by the fundamental creativity of science,” she said. “We hear about the rational side of science, we don’t really get to hear about the emotional commitment that scientists make to their research. It is not your rational brain that keeps you in the lab until 11 o’clock at night.”

Armstrong loved both biology and art as a kid, but was nudged toward the sciences in school. “By the time I went through school, I was told that sciences was where I wanted to be. So by the time I’d reached university and enrolled in medical sciences, I hadn’t even thought about what the outcome would be — that I’d end up as a doctor.”

She found that, while she loved interacting with patients, she felt a sort of ethical conflict in practicing medicine. “The tension I felt was practicing by protocol as opposed to practicing from first principles,” she said. “That’s where my sense of an ethical conflict came from. You go into medicine as a complete idealist, but then you end up with someone else’s politics.”

When she left medicine, she worked as a multimedia producer in the pharmaceutical industry. At the same time, she started collaborating with artists such as Orlan and Stelarc. “I used the creative aspects of science to ask the questions that interested me, but outside the laboratory.”

Her interest and curiosity converged in architecture. She had been invited to teach students about the impact of technology on the body, she says, but “I realized that rather than making buildings that were body-centric, the paradigm could be reversed so that we could consider our architecture as a kind of artificial ecology,” she told me in a follow-up e-mail this week. “This was really exciting as it allowed me to think about the synthetic biology questions that I loved in a new way. Not only was the science that I enjoyed now accessible in a social (rather than a laboratory) space but could be challenged at a whole new level of scale.”

At the Wellcome Collection talk, she joked that when she left medicine, she basically had no qualifications as a scientist. “You’re good for nothing,” she quipped. So I asked her by e-mail this week how she made herself into an expert in this niche of living architecture:

“By having a vision and pursuing it with passion, despite the obstacles and contradictions of not really ‘fitting’ in with any readily recognizable discipline. But I would also say that I am lucky. I think we are in the midst of a change in the way that we view the world,” she wrote. “As we realize that most things are not based on Cartesian mechanics which assumes that objects are made of the sum of their parts, nothing more, we now are having to admit that ‘life’ is much more complex and interconnected, so we are having to talk across disciplines and fields of expertise and cross-fertilize our knowledge.”

Photo credit: Wellcome Images