Secret Scientist: Suzanne Lee

Suzanne Lee: Senior Research Fellow at St Martin’s College of Art & Design

Suzanne Lee used to work as a consultant to the fashion industry and she now focuses on bringing fashion innovation to the market place. Her recent BioCouture project involves using bacteria to produce cellulose fibres that are chemically similar to cotton. Suzanne hopes that this ecologically sustainable process will allow designers to one day grow a dress in a vat of liquid.

Have you always been interested in science?
No! It’s been a long journey to get to where I am now. At school I was bottom of the class in chemistry, quite liked biology but dropped all sciences in favour of the arts at the first opportunity! I then went on to art school to study fashion design (at Central Saint Martins) which I loved, it felt comfortable and easy. I had always had an eye on future developments in science and technology but from the viewpoint of what they might mean for fashion. I used to buy Vogue and New Scientist together.

How did you come to work on BioCouture?
Years of following developments in science and technology led to the decision to share this knowledge in a book, Fashioning The Future: Tomorrow’s Wardobe (Thames & Hudson 2005/7). Over the 10 chapters I interviewed designers and scientists but one of the most interesting conversations was with a biologist, Dr.David Hepworth. He first challenged me with the idea that there were alternatives to plant-based cellulose as a textile material. Instead of growing cotton in a field he suggested growing cellulose using microbes in the lab. The concept of being able to grow a piece of clothing was too intriguing to ignore and has led to my present research project ‘BioCouture’.

What does a typical day in your working life consist of?
On arrival at my studio in the morning I check on the growth baths I currently have set up. I monitor the growth, check temperatures and calculate when the fabric will be ready to harvest. I might set up some small tests or experiments and probably spend far too long online trying to get my head around complex scientific papers in order to understand the next stage of research. I might also be thinking about a particular garment design, have to cut a pattern or figure out its construction. I regularly update my blog and do frequent lectures at home and abroad to increasingly diverse audiences. The real headache is finding funding which is an ongoing issue.

What excites you the most about your job?
Well it’s not short on challenges! I see what I’m exploring as part of a wider movement committed to finding new sustainable solutions to the many future environmental challenges we face. I particularly enjoy the fact that my work is entirely self-directed, I’m ultimately responsible for the vision and direction.

Could you tell us about something cool you have been involved with recently?
I was thrilled to show work in The Science Museum’s ‘Trash Fashion’ exhibition. We ran a 3 day public workshop in conjunction with scientists from Imperial College and had thousands of visitors who engaged with the research and gave great feedback.

How do you see your work as being different from stereotypes of science?
Well I still think of what I do as located within the field of design though there is of course a scientific convergence. It hasn’t made me a scientist, I don’t have a PhD in biochemistry. Artists and scientists speak different languages but I do recognise a certain creativity in science; risk taking and mistakes can lead to major discoveries in both worlds. Perhaps the distinctions will be become less pronounced in future, emerging fields like synthetic biology are turning scientists into designers and many designers today are thinking of biology as a creative tool.

Update: there are more great pictures of “how to grow frocks” on the Biocouture blog.

This is one of a series of interviews conducted by the British Science Association for National Science & Engineering Week 2011 and published here with thanks.

The British Science Association is the UK’s nationwide, open membership organisation that exists to advance the public understanding, accessibility and accountability of the sciences and engineering. Established in 1831, the British Science Association organises major initiatives across the UK, including National Science and Engineering Week, the annual British Science Festival, programmes of regional and local events, and an extensive programme for young people in schools and colleges. The Association also organises specific activities for the science communication community in the UK through its Science in Society programme. For more information, please visit the British Science Association website.

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