Design and Discovery: Light Dance A collaboration between Salk institute and Mesa College Fashion department to benefit women in science

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies and the Mesa College Fashion Department are collaborating on a runway project that translates scientific imagery and its underlying research to gala fashion design, sharing the excitement and underlying concepts of some areas of scientific research in the artistic and glamorous forum of the couture fashion show.

I'm Rachel Merrill, one of 13 designers partnering with a scientist at Salk to create a garment that translates her area of scientific research into fashion. I'm a student of fashion design with a background in virology research, so I'm thrilled to be participating!

This is Hermina Nedelescu, my scientist partner. Hermina is researching the role of the cerebellum in coordinating perfect, fluid movement. We meet in her lab at Salk. It feels like home because I spent many years in a virology research lab at UCSD long ago and now I find, more than ever, I miss the excitement, collaboration and satisfaction of scientific research whose goal is to improve the human condition.

Hermina is also a dancer, so there's a sense of poetic justice in her chosen field of research.

When Hermina shows me this photograph I am taken by its exquisite detail and beautiful structure. It's a detail of the cerebellum, which lies atop the brain stem, showing strings of intricate neurons and pearl-like Purkinje cells arranged like jewels around the cerebellar lobes. I think this should be a focal point in my design.

I sketch an idea for the dress; the skirt should convey the beautifully convoluted lobes of the cerebellum and the cerebellar image will be printed directly onto the fabric of the bodice.

I want to embed lights throughout the design that respond to the model's movements, reflecting the engagement of the cerebellum's neuronal architecture in coordinating fluid movement. The lights will be controlled by a tiny computer with an accelerometer.

After drawing and coloring my sketch, I add the light effects in Photoshop.

The finished sketch emerges, complete with lights, showing the printed bodice and convoluted cerebral folds. A good starting point.

We choose the team name "Light Dance" because the cerebellum coordinates the graceful movements of a dancer, and because I hope with the responsive lights in the dress to depict its neuronal activity as our "dancer" moves .

I begin work on the bodice by printing the image of the cerebellar detail onto paper...

...to size it for digital fabric printing. I imagine it with beading and embroidery that breathes life into the cells and neurons on my living model.

The fabric must be sheer enough for the lights to shine through it. Chiffon with a translucent backing of crinoline and silk organza should work.

Meanwhile, a pattern for the lobular folds of the skirt begins to take shape and a hunt is on for the perfect fabric.

Testing patterns for the skirt folds

This lavender fabric made from cotton, silk and metallic threads is pretty glitzy, but it works with the pattern and I decide to embrace the bling. Between the beading, lights and this fairytale fabric I think our model will be "gala-ready"!

During a video shoot to document our team's progress, I use my paper print bodice and a single large muslin lobe to show Hermina what I have in mind for the Light Dance dress. She likes it!

She trys her hand at soldering some of the LEDs I'll be using to light the garment, and she's a natural. It doesn't take long before she's soldering like a pro and she tells me her fine motor skills have been honed by working on tiny sections of tissue in her research on the cerebellum. How cool is that? We're both delighted when her LEDs light up!

This is Nicole Flanagan, our model extraordinaire; lovely, graceful and wearing her beautiful smile with ease, I know she'll look fantastic in the Light Dance dress. She's been excited about the project from the start, interested in the connection to scientific research, and loves the idea of modeling a "tech" garment. As each fitting session brings us closer to the final garment, she tells me she's getting excited about the show. So am I!

With all the materials and a pattern in hand, the garment is beginning to take shape. The bodice is beaded and embroidered to lend the image an illusion of dimensionality. It's a multi-layered affair with crinoline fused to the sheer printed fabric, a layer of polyester batting to diffuse the embedded lights, and a lining of sheer silk organza so I can see through it to set the electronics in place.

I don't want to overpower it with embellishment. Happily, the exquisite detail of the image shows up well.

The skirt lobes are edged with horsehair braid and layered with crinoline, silk organza and tulle, all designed to support their lobular shape but move fluidly. Each of the 6 folds is more than 3 yards long.

Hanging them over a door while I set in the layers and braid is an oddly effective way of controlling the long curved pieces of fabric.

I paint the silk organza edges with a tiny line of fabric glue to prevent fraying along almost 36 yards of silk edging in the skirt.

With the skirt shell completed, it's time to add enough tulle to hold open the folds and diffuse the lights.

Tulle bunches ready for installation

The underbelly of the beast!

The bodice and skirt are ready - it's time to build and install the electronics!

I check for the right level of diffusion inside a skirt lobe with a high intensity LED. Looking good!

During the early planning stages an electronics diagram guides garment construction and determines where the garment has to accommodate wire, bulbs, LEDs, electrical plugs, protective fabrics, and access points to the electronics. This preliminary rough sketch looks deceptively simple.

My electronics station looks pretty tidy...for now

More than 100ft of wire will support 70 LEDs and 6 high-intensity LED bulbs embedded throughout the garment. They'll be wired and programmed on 2 separate channels to syncopate the lights.

To protect the high-intensity LED bulb tips from the netting and tulle inside the skirt, I construct protective cones from tiny plastic funnels.

Each of the 70 LEDs and every soldered wire joint is covered with a small piece of shrink tube to protect it and prevent a short.

While I'm constructing the electronics inside the garment, my son Devon, a computer scientist, uses his 3-D printer to print a "cerebellar" case to house the computer and batteries. Nicole will wear it in her hair close to where the cerebellum is located above the spinal cord, with a wire "spinal cord" running down her neck into the bodice. Devon designs, builds and programs the tiny computer that controls the garment's lights.

Printing the case

The computer and accelerometer

It fits nicely into one half of the case; batteries will be in the other half.

The computer is joined to the bodice with a detachable plug. There's one between the bodice and skirt as well, so all the garment's parts can detach from each other.

After building the internal network of lights, it's time to set them into the bodice and skirt.

Wires are tucked inside the waistband and channeled down into the skirt lobes.

There are a lot of electronics in there, but eventually the bulbs are tacked onto netting in the tops of the lobes and strings of LEDs are covered in batting and sewn along the inner edge down the lobes. 20 LEDs are channeled inside the bodice to light up the printed image.

The skirt lobes are sewn closed along most of their length and a little underskirt is added.

The printed case gets some embellishment...

And goes for a test run. Looking good!

Ditto for the bodice...

...and the skirt.

We're ready for the runway!

Finally the big day arrives! The Design and Discovery fashion showcase was held at Salk Institute on October 4th amid much fanfare, and all of the designs looked spectacular. Models walked down the steps of the auditorium onto the stage under special lighting that showed each garment at its best. Now that the show has taken place I can reveal the finished design.

Nicole models the unlit bodice. The exquisite image of the cerebellum detail really shows.

Under dim lights the Light Dance gown is true to its vision and name. We are all thrilled with the final result.

With the lights lowered in expectation, all eyes follow Nicole as she glides down the runway.

The "cerebellar" case lights up as her movements send signals down the wire "spinal cord" to brighten the gown.

Nicole's smile lights up the runway too.

The lighted gown flows around her as she walks, reflecting the architecture and function of the cerebellum in coordinating perfect, fluid movement. The Light Dance gown is a success!

And what a spectacular evening this has been for the Light Dance Team!

Rachel, Hermina, Devon, Nicole
Created By
Rachel Merrill Lightedclothing.com

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