For the full interview see p60 in issue 26.
Science is magic. It’s complicated, it’s hard, and should only be attempted by those with the adequate training and a piece of paper from a university to prove that they have permission to access the secret knowledge. At least, that’s how it can feel.
One person bucking that stereotype is Chan’nel Vestergaard. She’s a self-taught programmer, maker, biologist, geneticist, and a visiting fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), despite not having passed any school qualifications.
We spoke to her from her new lab in Copenhagen, where she makes rubber from banana skins, silk from milk protein, and tries to teach people that science is for everyone, not just PhD candidates on university research programmes.
When we first met, you had some samples of fabric made out of various plant derivatives. For the benefit of anyone who hasn’t seen fabric made out of milk, what is it that you do?
The easiest thing I tell people is that I facilitate the engagement of new technologies or new materials via citizen science. What I do is I sit there and think ‘I can make this from this.’ I try it, and it works, and I put the protocol together, and then I teach people how to do it. That’s me verifying that my protocol works, that everything I’m doing works, and from there I develop the recipe and move further and further forwards.
Technically speaking, most people call me a futuristic material designer – maybe that’s what I am?
If something interests me, I’ll dive into it. For example, I’m really lucky to be working with a company based in Vancouver who are making the world’s first fully plant-based shoe. I’m working with them to develop a PETA-verified textile dye to dye these
Everything has to be 100% plant, but because of that, there are a lot of problems. I’m working on a dye at the moment taken from E. coli; when it grows in the soil, E. coli is black, but when you extract it into its raw form, it’s a bright, almost neon purple.
You can use it to make dyes that are almost indigo, like dark denim jeans. That’s what I’m working on right now.
This may be a silly question, but is that a safe thing to do?
This is why I do what I do. We all think of bacteria and fungus or mould as these terrible horrible things; they shouldn’t invade our homes, they shouldn’t invade our bodies. But there are different strains.
This is where it comes down to education. As soon as we see a black mould, we’re told that it’s a very bad thing. But it’s not: some black mould is used to make cheese. Some types of bacteria are used to culture yogurt. Some fungus is used to make antibiotics, penicillin, for example.