When curiosity and creativity meet science

Posted on Monday, July 30, 2018

Andrew Pelling, Ryan Hickey, Russell Gill, Jessica Holmes, Cassidy Swanston, Nikki Mogilever, Elaine Whittaker.

Pelling Lab members (from left): Andrew Pelling, Ryan Hickey, Russell Gill, Jessica Holmes, Cassidy Swanston, Nikki Mogilever, Elaine Whittaker. Photo credit: Robert Greeley

By Robert Greeley

Andrew Pelling, uOttawa’s own Curious George of science, is celebrating the Pelling Lab’s 10th anniversary. Best known for turning an apple into a human ear, the famed biohacker has, over the years, also grown a skin of living cells on LEGO pieces and lung tissue on maple leaves.

Andrew Pelling

Professor Andrew Pelling has created a lab based on curiosity and creativity because he felt that his own curiosity wasn’t valued during his studies. Photo credit: Colin Rowe

Diversity within

The immense variety of creations flowing out of the biophysics professor’s unique lab is due in part to the fact that it doesn’t have a specific goal or purpose. It’s based on curiosity and creativity and on turning everyday items — including garbage — into something magnificent. And students from different faculties across campus are encouraged to join in the fun.

“It’s really important to bring people together from other disciplines and backgrounds,” Pelling says. “That diversity of experiences and perspectives often leads to really interesting questions, ones that you would never predict. And when you come up with questions like that, it can lead to very interesting science.”

Apple ear sample.

Andrew Pelling’s famous “apple ear.” Photo credit: Bonnie Findley

Impacting lives

Pelling admits that when you start a research lab that’s based on creativity and curiosity, the last thing you might expect to do is something useful. But over the years, students in his lab have created real-world applications and intellectual property and founded four companies. One of those is already making a difference in the healthcare field and improving lives.

Close-knit team

Pelling nurtures a student experience like no other in his one-of-a-kind, unapologetically playful lab and prides himself on building strong connections with his students. Bachelor of Science student Jessica Holmes, who is going into her second year working in the lab, describes an exciting, exploratory environment.

“I’ve learned that’s it’s okay to fail. Andrew encourages failure — and it’s fun! Here, we get to enjoy doing things just out of curiosity.”

Russell Gill

BSc student Russell Gill tested motors for a new type of cell culture device that resulted in his hardware playing the Star Wars theme song. Photo credit: Robert Greeley

Learning from failure

In the Fall 2018 term, Pelling will teach a new course called X-Creative Projects (PHY 2900). Undergrads will have the opportunity to develop an idea of their own, make a prototype and work through the process of managing a project. And this prof understands the value of it failing.

The lab’s Biggest Fail Award

The Pelling Lab welcomes failure and believes it plays a big part in success. The lab’s Biggest Fail Award is given to students who achieve spectacular failures. Photo credit: Robert Greeley

“If you’re not failing, you’re not learning,” Pelling says. “I want students to go through the process and be unafraid of that spectre of failure — I'd rather them ask ‘What can we learn by doing this wild project?’”

Students and Professor Pelling pose on staircase.

On July 26, current and former students celebrated the Pelling Lab's 10th anniversary. Photo credit: Robert Greeley


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