Badass Women 1

Badass Women

2017  LEIGH BELZ RAY , In Style, October, 2017

Badass Women: Laura Dern Interviews Boundary-Breaking MIT Scientist Neri Oxman

Badass Woman spotlights women who not only have a voice but defy the irrelevant preconceptions of gender. (Not to mention, they are exceptionally cool.) In this conversation, actress Laura Dern talks to lauded MIT architect, designer and innovator Neri Oxman about how Oxman's work reinvents the word "science." 

Laura Dern: To start, talk to me about your origins—I think it’s interesting that I was raised by actors and you were raised by scientists.
Neri Oxman: Architects and engineers.
LD: Your work in material ecology, from biologically inspired fabrics to building-scale 3-D printing, is reinventing the word “science.” How did you become brave enough to see it all differently?
NO: When I arrived at the [media] lab, John Maeda proposed the ‘Bermuda Quadrilateral’ as homage to Rich Gold. The map—a rectangular plot—was parceled into four quadrants, each devoted to a unique view by which to read, and act upon, the world: Science, Engineering, Design and Art. To each plot a designated mission: to Science, exploration; to Engineering, invention; to Design, communication; to Art, expression. Describing the four 'hats' of creativity, Rich Gold had originally drawn the matrix-as-cartoon to communicate four discrete embodiments of creativity and innovation. Mark your mindset, conquer its little acre, and settle in. I proposed we turn the quadrants into a single continuous cycle where sickness transforms into engineering, engineering into design, design into art and art into science. The role of Science is to explain and predict the world around us; it ‘converts’ information into knowledge. The role of Engineering is to apply scientific knowledge to the development of solutions for empirical problems; it ‘converts’ knowledge into utility. The role of Design is to produce embodiments of solutions that maximize function and augment human experience; it ‘converts’ utility into behavior. The role of Art is to question human behavior and create awareness of the world around us; it ‘converts’ behavior into new perceptions of information, re-presenting the data re-initiating the cycle. At this ‘Cinderella moment’—when the hands of the cycle strike midnight—new perception inspires new scientific exploration.
A good analogy to the quadrants and the cycle, enlighten and entanglement, are the salad and the soup. 
Entanglement denotes the moment a few or more domains interrelate such that any domain single cannot be described alone, only all the domains masse. If Enlightenment was the salad, Entanglement is the soup. In the Age of Entanglement it becomes impossible to discern one ingredient from another.
So enlightenment is the salad. But in the age of entanglement, you have a soup. You don’t know exactly if you’re consuming biology or math or physics because they’re so intertwined—when you’re developing a new model, you’re applying as much math as you are implementing physics. When you’re designing a wearable that can sense your skin, you’re using synthetic biology, but you’re also questioning the physical behavior of its material.
LD: You’ve talked about your collaboration with Björk on the 3-D-printed masks she wears onstage. You describe the mask as “a hole that is broken, a face without its skin.” Vulnerability—that is what we’re experiencing with our planet.
NO: We must treat the planet as a system, and up until now we’ve operated more as if the world were made of separate parts—this part is environment, this part is economy. But naturally everything is connected: you can’t fix global warming with a PhD in thermodynamics!
LD: I agree. I also think it’s key for this new generation of girls and boys to see women forging ahead as CEOs and scientists.
NO: For me, it’s been one long journey of transformation. It starts with the little things, like communicating to my female students that they don’t need to be afraid to get pregnant while they’re doing their Ph.D.’s. I encourage them to bring their kids to the lab and teach them to play with robots and to program and to celebrate knowledge.
LD: What advice do you have for younger women who are finding their way in their careers?
NO: Look, I went to medical school after serving in the Israeli Air Force for three years. It was a serendipitous path. I fell in love with medical sciences back in high schools and believed, I still do, that medicine is the perfect combination of applied science and human compassion. Then I entered the school of Architecture and Urban planning at the Technion and immediately felt at home. But I took the long way home. And that’s what I always advise my students: Take the long way. There are no mistakes. It’s the scenic route—that’s where all the wonder happens. In terms of femininity and being a woman:
On bad days, when I have little patience for reflection, I turn off that sense of awareness; I go about my day and my work and—when faced with gender sensitive positions—I say to myself, “just get on with it!” But on good days, I tune in and I listen, inviting qualities associated with being a woman and how that enriches my work and my way of being. Most of the time though I find that acknowledging the gender-divide gets in the way of letting it go. And letting it go is best achieved by doing great work. It is only through hard work and awareness that we can truly own our identity, not by shoving it under a round table of suits.
LD: What I hope for is that girls and women reading about your work are inspired and it makes them say: “I’m a scientist, I’m a leader, I’m a politician, I’m a writer.” Not: “I’m a woman writer, I’m a woman scientist.” Before we end, I wanted to share that I love that quote of yours, “I believe in the balance between dreaming and building.”
NO: If you can suspend your disbeliefs at the interdisciplinary midnight, the “in betweens”, then and only then shall you become fortunately entangled.

For more stories like this, pick up the November issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Oct. 13.

« Previous     Next »