Welcome to this podcast where you’ll learn how interaction designer Giulia Tomasello is using life science to shift perceptions. I met Gi when she needed to grow some yoghurt bacteria in my lab incubator at The Royal Free Hospital in London. Our little experiment was cut short when a lab technician asked me the following day what was going on, and I rushed back to the incubator only to be slammed, barely approaching the lab, by a huge stench of warm Lactobacillus.
The wearable biosensor will be integrated or inserted in the underwear, so in the crotch area, and ideally should be… 00:48
Alma – Wearable Biosensor for Monitoring Vaginal Discharge https://www.hackster.io/alma/alma-wearable-biosensor-for-monitoring-vaginal-discharge-b1022f
The kit has been designed to allow women to establish, nurture and harvest their very own personal skin flora at home… 3:11
Future Flora https://gitomasello.com/Future-Flora
This Future Flora project was my Master thesis in Central Saint Martins, and in 2018 got a prize from European Commission; in 2016 when I graduated got a D-… 6:42
Grand Prize – Artistic Exploration https://starts-prize.aec.at/en/future-flora/
Realising oh, now I’m actually at the part where I’m starting to have menstruation, it probably can happen when you’re a teenager, but also when you are still in elementary school, which actually is my case… 12:45
And now I’m going to Seattle and New York. Yeah, to Seattle for a symposium called Design Travel, so I’ve been invited for a round discussion about the decolonisation of design and… 18:00
I’m working with 3 guys which are PhD in University of Cambridge and yeah, the topic is about vaginal infections, and I can see constantly the difficulty in… 20:40
Arian Hi guys, how’s it going? Did you know that for $85,000 you could have your horse cloned? Didn’t see that coming, did ya? ♪ tune
A pH Meter Worn in Underwear
Arian Welcome to this podcast where you’ll learn how interaction designer Giulia Tomasello is using life science to shift perceptions. I met Gi when she needed to grow some yoghurt bacteria in my lab incubator at The Royal Free Hospital in London. Our little experiment was cut short when a lab technician asked me the following day what was going on, and I rushed back to the incubator only to be slammed, barely approaching the lab, by a huge stench of warm Lactobacillus. The experiment was part of Giulia’s ground-breaking Future Flora project that presented a prototype kit for treating and preventing one’s own vaginal yeast infections. You can imagine me when I was a woman being filmed talking about this from my scientific perspective, surrounded by other women, deep inside this female space – how things change. Giulia, welcome!
Giulia Hello, hi everybody!
Arian Tell us about your present project called Alma.
Giulia So Alma is a project in development actually, and with a few scientists from Cambridge in UK, and Alma is a wearable biosensor designed for women to monitor vaginal discharge. So this biosensor will be able to detect pH and lactose to be able to prevent early bacterial vaginosis or early Candida.
Arian So, how does this work exactly?
Giulia So, the wearable biosensor will be integrated or inserted in the underwear, so in the crotch area, and ideally should be worn every day, and when the vaginal discharge that naturally a woman can produce, it will lie down on the wearable biosensor, it will be able to detect the right pH and then make a kind of, a range of during the day; and then analyse if it’s actually becoming, if it’s actually more basic or more acidic, and see where a woman’s stage is.
Arian We’re gonna find out more about that, but first Giulia has actually won a grand prize for her Future Flora work, more details in a second ♪ tune
A Prize for Interdisciplinary Innovation
Arian So Giulia is getting really worried now, because she realised she said something… You can correct it now, this is your opportunity, go for it.
Giulia Ok.. This is, it proves actually that I’m a designer not a scientist. Even though I’m approaching design as a biohacker. So, the wearable biosensor is actually able to detect pH and lactate, which is actually not lactose.
Arian Yeah. Lactose is in milk, so… Unless you’re milking out of your vagina, then I would not expect lactose there. It takes courage to broach subjects others wouldn’t dare, as you can probably tell, already in this episode, and some people actually dismissed you when you wanted to explore Future Flora. At the time I felt like I must’ve been the crazy one going along with it, but now, after you’ve shown them how it’s done, and gone ahead to win the Grand Prize for Artistic Exploration at STARTS Prize 2018, the Grand prize of the European Commission honouring Innovation in Technology, Industry and Society stimulated by the Arts – that is quite a long title – I feel extremely proud of the amazing do-it-yourself bio community that you and I are part of, and the people who will break boundaries and take risks.
This is an excerpt from the Jury Statement: “Through the thick digital forest, there was a distinctive and loud call for returning to nature, attention to life, biology, the self, the body—especially empowering the female body and its sexuality which came as no surprise after a year of #MeToo. Responding to this collective consciousness wave, the jury agreed that Future Flora embraced the issues of reclaiming female power—with DIY and no shame—in a way that could prove empowering to others seeking to find a voice. Interaction designer Giulia Tomasello brings to the forefront issues that the medical community should consider in their production of pharmaceuticals for women. This project also engages the public to consider feminine hygiene and the surrounding taboos. It makes us think differently about bacteria in general—important in times of overuse of antibiotics and antiseptics that are destroying the ecological balance.
With the advent of scientific research into the microbiome, the designer asks how we feel about the idea that we consist almost entirely of bacteria. Many existing thrush treatments include a whole host of chemicals that cure yeast infections but also destroy good bacteria, making things worse for women. In her own words, Giulia explains that “the kit has been designed to allow women to establish, nurture and harvest their very own personal skin flora at home, becoming not only consumers but also active participants in their own health and wellbeing.” Giulia, what motivates you in persevering where others wouldn’t?
Giulia Let’s say that as a woman I felt the need to address, like, the need of design in our everyday life. And I suffer of vaginal infections, so it was kind of easy to dive into this topic, and I’m passionate about technology, innovation and smart material. So actually, combining these three together and trying to find a solution for what is vaginal infection actually in the everyday life, and how women can cope with it, was kind of immediate.
Arian That’s brilliant. As usual, our star guest has a story on how she really wasn’t a star student, we’ll be right back. ♪ tune
Arian Giulia has not completed a degree in science, and we love outsiders here on The A Level Biologist Podcasts; a lot of A level biology students feel tremendous pressure about their grades and getting into uni. Did you feel stressed out at school, and did it turn out to be for nothing when you started working? For example, meeting deadlines.
Giulia Yeah, so actually the fear of deadlines is still there, but I learned that in a work field it’s much about probably, there is a human side from it, like you can speak or you have at least less pressure when it comes to grades. And, funny story, like this Future Flora project was my Master thesis in Central Saint Martins, and in 2018 got a prize from European Commission; in 2016 when I graduated got a D- which is kinda a kick… to graduate, so…
Arian A D-…
Giulia Yeah, funny story
Arian So D- is failing…
Giulia It’s almost… No, no, no, it’s actually a pass. It’s a pass with a kick, I guess.
Arian So it’s the lowest pass grade, what is, what’s the scale, the grade scale?
Giulia So the scale in England goes, correct me if I’m wrong, from D to A that you pass, and from E to below that you fail.
Arian I think for, well for A levels it’s, yeah, it’s a bit complicated because there’s like a passing to get, to receive the certificate, then there’s a passing to have the bare minimum acceptable at university, and I think for A levels, A, B… A*, A, B, C, D, E is passing. But a C is considered like, a good pass. So maybe a D- is a pass, but not really a good pass.
Giulia Yeah, actually. So this is why I was very, very confused because one week I was doing the degree show and I got a D-, and the week after I was on Dezeen, one of the famous design blogs. So it was kind of, I was like who is right? The rest of the world or only my mentor? I don’t know.
Arian When a door closes, a window opens. It seems like that’s what it seems like. Did they, what was their feedback for giving you a D-?
Giulia Well, the project came from a very weird process. So, at the beginning I was developing my Master thesis from another project, which it was bioconductive skin, which is actually still there, in a work in progress one day. And it was about growing kombucha, which is a cellulose in my room; and trying to hack this process of growing this cellulose by making it conductive. And it just didn’t went anywhere, some point after like 8 months because growing a material it takes time, it takes nurturing, and maybe in the end you get a result that is sick, or it can die which is kind of weird to say about a material which you want to work with. Actually it’s a living organism, and I didn’t have a specific goal with it. Like, I knew I wanted to have kind of a second layer of skin which was conductive, but not really for which reason. And then for the last 3 months where I had to graduate with a project, Future Flora born and came up.
Arian I actually worked with kombucha in a few different workshops and, if I remember correctly, normally cellulose is this very sturdy material that plants have in their cell walls to keep the cells from changing shape too much, and it is what gives them their structure and their rigidity, so the idea is that kom… wait, is it kombucha? Yeah… Kombucha is bacteria, isn’t it, that produce their own structurally different cellulose, so-called bacterial cellulose that’s supposed to have different properties, or the same properties… I’m not sure.
Giulia Yeah, so it’s… we can call it yeast as well, I guess, and it’s coming from the fermentation of tea, vinegar and sugar; when a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) which is a piece of mother kombucha, from this brewing and fermentation, this new cellulose grows on top of the SCOBY. And the fact is that a lot of designers already are taking this cellulose that grows on top, so this layer, we can call it, of material, they dry it and it looks, when it’s dry, it looks like vegetable leather. And they try to make clothes with it. But the problem is that when you’re wearing it, actually because the moisture of your skin the material gets wet again, and very weak and breakable. But my point was to try to make it conductive from the growing process, so I was injecting many things like graphite, copper powder into the mother, the SCOBY, and trying to create a conductive kid.
Arian I swear, this interface of science and DIY and designers and non-scientists is the most exciting place for science, I think, really, and interdisciplinarity has been such a fertile concept for many people, I’ll ask Gi about her take on it, coming up next. ♪ tune
Working between the Lines
Arian My PhD, I keep mentioning my PhD, I feel like this is the fifth time I’ve mentioned it in the podcast, but there you go, my PhD was commissioned specifically to marry biology with something else, like programming, material science, physics, etc. You take it several steps further by actually marrying it with design and fields outside of science entirely. What does interdisciplinarity mean to you and in your work?
Giulia So, the interdisciplinary part of my work is actually the core. Cos I believe that design by its own, of course it’s a powerful medium, but it’s not enough. So at this stage, like in our contemporary modern life, we need to work with other people every day. So we need to work, as a designer, we need to work with engineers, with scientists, with fashion designers, with philosophers, with psychologists, cos design can cover so much, but by its own, not really. So it really needs the knowledge of other people in order to make something much more complex, and at the same time much more innovative.
So technology and science are the closest into my field and my skills as well, so it’s easier for me to read, well not so easy, but I’m trying to read scientific papers, or as well to code, using coding within technology and interaction; so this is where I love to work. I love to work in labs, with scientists, and I love to work in maker spaces with engineers or other designers like me, and it’s the best place.
Arian That, I totally agree, and I know a lot of people probably have a very faint idea when you say designer, so tell them about it. What is a designer? I think you’ve got some interesting points on that, cos you said oh, people think it’s this random thing but it’s not random.
Giulia No, so design also is quite broad, as a field. So I was born, was gonna say, as a product designer. And then I’ve been slowly creating my specialisation on electronic textiles which I had to combine technology and fashion design which I studied by my own. And then I’ve been studying social design which gave even much more focus and attention on the user experience and the user approach to what you propose to them as a designer, so by proposing an object, by proposing a service. And then, I’ve been studying the importance of materials and how material plays in the everyday life, thinking in today, present life, but also in a speculative future. And I guess, for me, design, being a designer is having this kind of ability in creating something that specifically, user or target user can use for their need. In my case, I work in the women’s healthcare field, where there is a lot actually to cope with, and at the moment I’m focused on more social taboo which are vaginal infections and miseducation.
Arian Miseducation… Such as what?
Giulia So, education on sexual healthcare, education in vaginal health, in menstruation, birth control, like all this kind of topics which, we as women, we kind of get to know this topic by living it, by realising oh, now I’m actually at the part where I’m starting to have menstruation, it probably can happen when you’re a teenager, but also when you are still in elementary school, which actually is my case. I was only 10 years old. It’s things that actually nobody is really introducing you unless probably your family can do, even though they probably don’t do it; it’s not because they lack in knowledge by their own, but it’s the system from my point of view, that lacks in actually giving a structure and an education on it. So this is where I stand. I want as a designer, because design is my tool, I want to make, to try to make a change and try to make education available, and why not? Because now technology is in our daily life, why not by using technology and also biology?
Arian Exactly, I love that. Loads of people love travelling as a baked-in perk of their job, let’s see where Gi has been and is going to, in just a sec. ♪ tune
Working Love, Loving Work
Arian Scientific academic life is known for great travelling opportunities. I got to travel to Germany, France, Belgium, Switzerland, the United States…where have you been and where are you going that is super cool?
Giulia Well, recently I’ve been a bit everywhere, but mainly I would say Europe and Asia. So I’m just coming back from travelling to Japan, where I had the honour to exhibit the project Future Flora, and to give two talks actually. So, one in, it was actually part of the exhibition in Tokyo midtown, and another one was in University and actually in a microbiology lab. So, Hideo Ozaki, the professor invited me, first to produce my bacteria that I exhibited, so I exhibited Lactobacillus. Which I actually made.
Arian Congrats! You should see the smug look of pride on her face.
Giulia Thanks. I’m developing, from my kitchen to the lab in Tokyo. And then, so he invited me to give a talk. And he owns also a group where people can kind of work into the biodesign field, so it was very interesting to give the talk to scientists but also to artists which are in the same field like me, working with biodesign. And now I’m going to Seattle and New York. Yeah, to Seattle for a symposium called Design Travel, so I’ve been invited for a round discussion about the decolonisation of design and non-human entities; and then I’m going to New York to work for, well actually to participate for the e-Textiles Spring Break, which is actually a community which I’m part of since a few years, and we are practitioners around the field of electronic textiles; and we meet every summer in France or in Taiwan, and also every spring in New York to collaborate and spend time together.
Arian Ok, I think at this point you’re making The A Level Biologist Podcast look good just by being on it.
Arian I’ll shock Giulia with a stat off my website, and see her reaction in just a second. ♪ tune
Sex in Design
Arian Your work is very focused on female health and empowerment, while some people still don’t understand the importance of representation in fields of exploration and work, and how the personal experiences of people themselves shape industries, products and perceptions. I strongly believe in students being able to stay as open minded as possible for as long as possible, but it seems that’s not the case. I find it baffling that kids make limiting decisions so early, when out in the real world, funding bodies are specifically designing PhDs around interdisciplinarity. Did you know that 90% of A level physics students are male, and now 70% of A level biology students are female? And so even on my website The A Level Biologist, the Google stats are showing a 70% female audience! What has been your experience with this?
Giulia Yeah… Well, actually it was, and it is still very difficult to find women in the field of science and engineering to work with. So at the moment actually for the project Alma I’m working with 3 guys which are PhD in University of Cambridge and yeah, the topic is about vaginal infections, and I can see constantly the difficulty in… Especially the emotional part, even beside like a wearable sensor, biosensor, because of course you cannot expect to… Well, I mean in the pharmaceutical or in product, very few products are really addressed from a user approach point of view.
So, when I work with my scientists, it’s every time a kind of a battle to explain them that actually something that they are making, even though it’s beautiful, still needs to be comfortable, and still needs to be acceptable for women to use it. And, so when I sometimes want to have more of a female approach or point of view, in the field of science it’s a bit difficult. So recently I’m kind of trying to find more gynaecologists which are in the field already, and I’m finding good women really ready to explore these boundaries and try to make a change; but yeah, in a field like material engineering, it’s very difficult.
Arian Yeah. I don’t know if I’ve done you a service by transitioning to male now, but…
Giulia You did.
Arian Not that my personal life should really matter, but still it’s quite funny. Thank you for joining me Gi, thank you for listening, and remember, correlation is not causation, but that does not mean correlation has no predictive value. Knowing whether and when something happens, or why something happens are different questions. Byeeee
Giulia Bye-bye. ♪ tune
Learn more about Giulia and Alma at https://www.gitomasello.com