Transduction is the process by which materials, devices and organisms, humans included, convert of one kind of energy or signal into another.

Transduction is a Page Barbour interdisciplinary lecture series at the University of Virginia, open to all, with an associated course for credit for graduate students and advanced undergraduates.  Excerpts from the Page Barbour proposal below provide an introduction to program content, format and pedagogical vision.

INTRODUCTION

Typically we think of the material world in terms of static stable objects with fixed boundaries and predictable, intended properties. Our practical imagination is often limited to what we can see with our eyes and hold in our hands, not the full compositional complexity from molecular to macro scale, not the complete “cradle to grave” matter lifecycle and global reach. Furthermore, we often take ourselves out the equation, how we affect and are affected by materials in the world around us. When we fly on airplanes or sit on our couches, we don’t imagine that toxic flame retardants are entering our bodies. When we eat food out of a can or collect gas station receipts, we aren’t thinking about dosing ourselves with hormone mimics. When we seal waste in barrels, bury it in the ground, or throw it into the ocean, we don’t expect it and its breakdown products to end up in sea creatures and our food and water supply. We don’t imagine that resources and energy to make and drive devices could be limited, or give much thought to where the old model and its constituent parts end up when we buy a new one. When we spend so many of our waking hours on our computers, iPhones and other devices, it doesn’t occur to us that we are refashioning our very brains and communities. But in fact this is happening.

Scientific, technological, and artistic innovations as well as environmental health, justice and other sustainability concerns are challenging our conventional notions about materials and highlighting the limitations, even harms, of traditional “static object” thinking. Materials have histories and transmit energy and signals, chemical, biological, optical, mechanical, thermal, electrical, magnetic, acoustic, and more.  For good and for ill, molecules and other signals cross boundaries, those of our own bodies included. We are, after all, responsive material systems ourselves and our choices regarding material and energy resources have societal and health consequences.

It is maybe better, we are learning from science, sustainability studies and many fields, to think of the material world as dynamic, responsive systems, as interactive hierarchies of structure networked with their surroundings. Materials mediate signals, often transducing or converting one kind of energy into another, effecting change and being changed in the process. Solar panels that convert light into electricity, or bacterial chemotaxis and plant phototropism, by which organisms gravitate toward or away from chemical and optical stimuli illustrate as much. Electronic devices and increasingly sophisticated imaging, sensing, and detection systems make complex sequences of energy translations and subtle signal transductions evident in visible, audible and other ways.

In essence, whether as molecules or composite nano or macroscale assemblies, natural and synthetic materials are interactive media or devices.  They perform specific functions, intended or not. They imply human and other kinds of interfaces, in their design, use, and in mediating signal exchange, communication and expression of various sorts. Discovering, understanding and optimizing material properties is cutting edge materials science. Harnessing them is state of the art engineering and technology development. Increasingly, responsive devices and interactive media are also at the center of art, education, community and culture. And ways that we sense, adapt and respond, consciously or not, to the dizzying array of signals in our bodies and environments, defines human biology, experience, environmental health and wellbeing.

How can we be more mindful of the material world in and around us and best navigate these complex media landscapes? As fields from materials chemistry, urban design, and cultural studies increasingly illustrate, shifting from “materials as isolated, static, stable objects” (nouns) to “materials as complex relational processes” (verbs), attentive to spatial, temporal, compositional and energy trajectories, may provide some important insights and clues.

FORMAT AND PEDAGOGICAL VISION

With faculty and students from many disciplines from across the university, and prominent thought leaders from across the world and nation, this interdisciplinary seminar series will explore signal transduction through responsive media of different types and scales with particular attention to the human interface. Historical background, signal/exchange vocabulary, material processes—natural, synthetic, human/anthropogenic—creative expressions, and societal and environmental health impacts will be investigated.

Support from the Page Barbour program and other departments across Grounds will be used to host prominent outside speakers who illuminate these themes in their work, model interdisciplinary research, scholarship, creativity, and community engagement at its best, and demonstrate talent for sharing the excitement of their work with general audiences. These events will be of interest to multiple audiences across the university, given that project themes are synergistic with research interests of many faculty and students across Grounds. They will be integrated into and augment departmental seminar programs and an associated advanced course for credit to be led by Cassandra Fraser in Spring 2014, including UVA participants as speakers.

Integrating research and teaching in this way necessitates a sequential, not one time conference model. It addresses the Page Barbour program priority of involving graduate students, who, through discussion and assignments will engage with faculty and invited speakers, and synthesize and create knowledge across sessions. Envisioning, designing and orchestrating ambitious interdisciplinary projects of this nature is an essential part of Fraser’s integrated research, teaching and creative work, spawning new ideas, collaborative projects, invited talks, papers, and fellowships in local, national and international venues, thus showcasing innovative UVA initiatives.  Extensive interaction with faculty and students across Grounds in project planning and execution phases is itself invaluable interdisciplinary work.

Importantly, this project is exploratory and experimental, in both content and pedagogical format. By exploring a timely, emerging theme from many angles, it employs the very interactive systems approach to discovery that the project content advocates. It builds new networks, seeks new connections, and invites participants to explore unfamiliar disciplinary territories.  Rather than drawing diverse people out of their environments and meeting in the same room every time, we instead envision a distributed network, wherein participants engage in disciplinary foreign study, visiting the workspaces (e.g. labs, studios) and gathering spaces of different fields, getting a first hand look and feel for the media and culture of different disciplines. Course participants and other graduate students and postdocs from participating fields will be recruited to collaborate with faculty, and assist with organizing and hosting events in their departments. Though this could pose logistical challenges, a well managed website and weekly follow up sessions for discussion and project planning at a consistent location will provide continuity and coherence. By project planning, we mean both the program sessions as well as additional workshops associated with individual and collaborative course assignments that will culminate in an end of semester presentation (e.g. exhibit, talk, performance; material, conceptual; analytical, inventive) to the university and local community. There will be opportunities for advanced students and postdocs to influence session design, providing them with special collaborative, interdisciplinary research and professional development opportunities.  New knowledge, networks and interdisciplinary projects are bound to come from this multifaceted interdisciplinary experiment.  We are eager to run it and find out.