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Interview

Creating energy from plants: Rachel Major

Rachel Major went to Drexel University and graduated with a bachelor’s in Biochemistry in 2014.  She combined her educational background, internship at Biomimcry 3.8, and business certificate from Stanford in her professional ambitions as an engineer with a biomimetic approach to advocate and produce sustainable technology and practices in business.  She was chosen to be an intern at the Advanced Studies Laboratory (ASL) at NASA Ames, which helped her create NuLEAF Tech.  She now attends Foothill College part-time as she prepares to apply to graduate school for material science.

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NuLEAF Tech makes energy from plants


Tell us about your background as a biologist and as the Founder/CEO of NULeaf Technologies.
If there is one thing that I have learned as a biologist, it is that biology is often sequestered into health sciences.  I seek to be a pioneer in the biomimetic movement that helps biology transcend into a powerful tool that helps us solve a wide breadth of problems from electrical engineering to architecture and anything in between.  Biomimicry is a method of problem solving from the view point of “how does nature solve this and what can I learn from that?”  The world, and the incredible forms of life that fill it, are full of biologically diverse adaptations to problems we seek to solve every day.  Biomimicry allows us to draw engineering inspiration from nature’s 3.8 billion year-old genius.  Even better, nature often has sustainable, multi-functional solutions, which is what the tech world needs right now. 

Through this passion for biomimicry, NuLEAF Tech was founded.  I’ve always wanted to find a way to generate electricity from plants.  When I was given a chance to submit a proposal, the idea of creating a biomimetic, thermoelectric coating on plants came naturally.  What followed was something I didn’t expect—that I would begin to create a volunteer student organization with a community of young and experienced professionals collaborating on project-based learning.  Mimicking the interconnectivity of life, NuLEAF Tech utilizes a founding principle of interdisciplinary science and combining disciplines that were previously thought to be unrelated.  3D printing and biology is one of those partnerships, and integrating computer simulations and 3D printing has been a pleasant surprise for the NuLEAF students.

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Designers often look to nature to create design solutions. This is called biomimicry.​

What are some of the trends in the science classroom that are emerging in response to 3D modeling and digital fabrication?
3D printing allows students to approach problems from a completely novel standpoint.  While exploring the capabilities of 3D printing, they not only take the initiative to learn the ins and outs of CAD software, but they also see their ideas brought to life in a tangible form.  3D printing allows students to get involved with science in the classroom on a much deeper, personal level.  It creates a trend where homework isn’t homework; it’s innovation and creativity bearing fruit to something you can hold in your hand or see on a computer screen.

It is especially encouraging to see this trend in a community college like Foothill College.  Often pegged as less hard working than their big-school counter parts, community college students are just as driven to solve serious issues with, usually, fewer resources or opportunities to practice their skills.  I wouldn’t have been able to start NuLEAF without Foothill’s support and the support of their faculty.  Foothill College has done an excellent job of giving students opportunities to tackle the problems they’re passionate about solving, like giving students CAD biomedical internships.  3D printing creates a wonderful synergy between giving students projects to work on, the confidence that they can do them, and the relatively cheap resources to get the job done.  

How can educators and learners enhance their understanding of 3D modeling and 3D printing in the science classroom?
The first step should be to show the limitless possibilities of 3D modeling.  I worked at Foothill’s 3D Printing STEM camp last summer, where we taught middle and high school students the basics of 3D printing, including Fusion 360 software.  It was the first time I was exposed to 3D printing and what stood out the most to me was the sheer diversity of applications.  We taught the students about how 3D printing was used to make car parts, food, medical devices, and even clothes!  It was amazing and quite eye-opening, and now I know of even more applications, like computer simulations and nanotechnology research.  

If you want students to be excited about 3D printing, they need to know that they can use it for anything they put their mind to.  Educators need to understand how far their students will be able to take these abilities and encourage them to get creative.  When I was at the STEM camp, some kids were creating detailed replicas of complex Japanese temples with Fusion 360 after one week.  I know an aerospace student at Foothill who, after one CAD course, spends most of his free time replicating a MIG-25 jet down to the details of individual bolts and panels – for fun!  Education systems should provide resources like classes and a few 3D printers to give the students the basics.  Then teach the students that, with a little imagination, they can have a lot of fun developing practical applications for those skills.  

How can the design process help foster new ways of teaching and learning?
If you couldn’t tell, I am a big fan of project-based learning—and Foothill is too!  Too often students are given an experiment or project where the outcome is already known instead of creating and solving a problem themselves.  This doesn’t make students passionate or give them the determination or discipline to work through road bumps in their experiments.  In a professional or research setting, it’s the opposite – you are faced with a problem and you have to work your way to a solution and sometimes analyze some really bizarre results.  Students aren’t usually taught to design an experiment or get down to the nitty gritty of researching how to really build things from the ground up, and that’s a problem.  Project-based learning is a way to fix that.

3D printing and software like Fusion 360 plays an important role in this dynamic because it does allow students to go through the design process and mess up while they do it!  Students start with an idea or problem they want to solve and they create a solution.  Not only do they go through this whole thinking process when using CAD software and creating their design, but they can then print and physically test it.  More often than not, it’s not going to work the first time and that’s great.  The fact that students can make a lot of prototypes, fail early, and have the determination to continue to improve their design is one of the fantastic tools of 3D printing.  It creates a cycle of self-learning, hands-on experience, and confidence in the student that would make any good pupil or professor excited.

What will the sciences look like in twenty years?
Technology is progressing so rapidly that it can be hard to predict, but whatever ride we are going to go on, it is going to be a crazy one.  When I was born in 1991, the internet had just become a reality.  Today, I carry around an internet capable machine in my pocket.  And it even makes phone calls!  Now, we are on the verge of cybernetic implants, creating interactive touch screens on your kitchen countertops, medicine catered to your genetics, and creating quantum computers, to name a few.  It’s safe to say computers, 3D printing, and software like Fusion 360 are going to be pivotal tools in this changing landscape. Much like evolution, adapting to change in such an immersive technology environment will be our greatest ally.   

For scientists and engineers, it is a glorious time to be alive.  Still, none of this will matter if we can’t find a harmonious way to live on this planet with both technology and nature.  Stephen Hawking recently stated that humanity could destroy itself in the next 100 years if we do not heed the negative side effects of our technological boom, including global warming, super bugs, and nuclear weapons.  It won’t matter if we find the cure for cancer if there is no one around to cure.  It won’t matter if we are close to creating a colony on mars if there is no one on earth to occupy it.  The most important thing science will need in the next twenty years is hard working, intelligent people who are committed to overcoming these daunting challenges.

What college and career advice would you give to students interested in technology and science?
Recognize that your passion for science and technology doesn’t belong to anyone else but yourself; this is particularly important for women and minority groups.  If something lights you up inside, then don’t let anyone stop you.  Be the reason storms are named after people.  Learn to believe in yourself because no one else is going to do it for you.  Also recognize that you must hone incredible discipline in order to study STEM subjects and pursue this passion.  Motivation and determination can be fickle, and are going to falter each time you fail, which you will hopefully do a lot.  Discipline will help you learn each time you fail and keep going to be even better than before.

Self-reliance and confidence are important traits when pursuing these fields, but so is collaboration and finding mentors.  One of my favorite quotes from Isaac Newton, paraphrased, is that we stand on the shoulders of giants.  Newton was saying that he was only able to make his own scientific breakthroughs because of the scientific breakthroughs of his forbearers.  To me, it also means that we stand on the evolutionary shoulders of nature and all of life’s adaptations to be where we are today.  Either way, when you pursue STEM careers you enter a complex community that has had its gears working decades before you got there.  Use this to your advantage in not only being humble to what your predecessors can teach you, but also finding mentors to help you make the most of the transition.

Learn more about biomimicry and design.