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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
“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?’”