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This Neuroscientist Brings ‘Research to the Runway’ With STEM-Inspired Fashion

Yuly Fuentes-Medel hopes to communicate the value of science across disciplines, cultures, and peoples.

by Becky Ferreira
Jan 18 2018, 7:30pm

Rei Watanabe

Neuroscientist Yuly Fuentes-Medel has chased a lifetime of “aha moments” to become the “hybrid thinker” she is today. As the founder of Descience, an organization that enables collaboration between the science and fashion communities, as well as an enthusiastic advocate for international scientific partnerships, she is committed to forging creative links between people with vastly different backgrounds and talents.

“Curiosity has always been in my DNA,” she told me over the phone, adding that even now, in her thirties, she is still “wondering what I’m going to do when I grow up.”

Born in Chile, Fuentes-Medel was fascinated with biology from childhood, leading her to earn a biochemistry degree from the Universidad de Concepción in 2005, followed by a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 2012.

But when considering her next move, she veered away from a career in pure research, opting instead to dive into the commercial side of science with a postdoc at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

“I love doing experiments,” she said, “but when you go down the path of being a professor at a university, you’re driven by understanding one aspect of the science field and not expanding knowledge about everything else. I felt I was more talented in connecting the dots, in connecting ideas, and I wanted to use that and learn how to use it in a more efficient way.”

Indeed, one of her most life-changing epiphanies occurred outside of any classroom or laboratory environment, but rather at a fashion show that a designer friend invited her to attend. “When all those models and pictures and colors started to come out on the runway, it was another ‘aha moment,’” Fuentes-Medel told me.

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Enchanted by the creative spectacle, she recalled thinking: “Oh my God, what we’re missing here is that we can use fashion as a strong medium to really translate, and get people to relate, to science.”

This flash of inspiration prompted Fuentes-Medel to found Descience, a network of fashion designers and scientists, and she now serves as executive director of the organization’s seven-person team.

The outfit made by Team "Interwoven," a collaboration between designer Margaret Jackson and engineer Pedro Parraguez Ruiz. Image: Jack Perno

The project received international attention in 2014, after Fuentes-Medel organized the first Descience Fashion Show. It began with the basic idea of pairing up one designer with one scientist, then rapidly snowballed into a major event as dozens of cross-disciplinary professionals expressed interested in entering the challenge.

Runway at Descience Fashion Show. Image: Sharon Lacey

In the end, 61 duos from 47 cities around the world participated, each with an inventive way of communicating scientific ideas through clothing. The winning collaboration, a project called “Cytocouture” created by designer Carlos Villamil and MIT biomaterial engineer Laura Indolfi, used Indolfi’s work with endothelial cells as a model for an adaptable garment that could be reshaped and modified in multiple ways.

“Quorum54,” a collaboration between designer Tatiana Tejedor and synthetic biologist Tal Danino produced a luminescent outfit inlaid with cancer-detecting bacteria.

“When we did it at the time, people thought it was insane and crazy,” Fuentes-Medel said. Now, the links between science and fashion have become much more developed, and she is proud to have had a role in creating that space. “It wasn’t about the product,” she reflected, “it was about the process. It’s about understanding how we merge and create these hybrid thinkers.”

Descience is only the latest of several initiatives that Fuentes-Medel has undertaken to expand and diversify scientific thought across disciplines, cultures, and peoples. One of her biggest passions has been stimulating science research in Latin America, and she has pioneered many programs to follow through on that ambition.

“My personal life taught me that science can happen everywhere,” she said. “But a country like Chile, which spends less than 1 percent of the GDP in science, makes it hard for those individuals to thrive and create experiments.”

As the executive director of the nonprofit organization ChileMASS, founded in 2011 to encourage STEM collaborations between Chile and Massachusetts, Fuentes-Medel has made a strong case that Chile, with its rich natural resources and unique habitats, is a fantastic location for new laboratories, startups, and tech incubators.

She has also fostered programs like the Aji Challenge, which brings Chilean entrepreneurs to MIT to develop partnerships and strategies for their technologies. As co-founder of the biannual laboratory course “Small Brains, Big Ideas,” Fuentes-Medel has helped train dozens of Latin American students to use small-brained model organisms like worms and flies to conduct biomedical research.

“I think science is a privilege, but also, we were born scientists—everyone,” Fuentes-Medel said of these international initiatives. “The curiosity is always there. If you design systems, societies, and economies that allow people to bring science into their own vocation, happiness, and their own way of being, we will be better off.”

When I asked what’s next for her own vocation, Fuentes-Medel kept the cards close to her chest. She intends to build on her successful ventures, she told me, and looks forward to encouraging more hybrid thinkers ready to embrace interdisciplinary research as the future of science.

But she is also leaving the door wide open for new surprises and frontiers. “I’m always looking for spaces where I’m the one who knows the least,” she said, “so I learn.”

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