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Emily Whiting Awarded Sloan Research Fellowship

BU computer scientist builds software tools design novices can use to create models for their structures

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Emily Whiting, a computer scientist fascinated by simulated and physical shapes and structures, wants anyone and everyone to be able to take advantage of today’s rapid prototyping technology (like 3D printing) to manufacture custom-designed products or art forms from scratch. At the intersection of art and technology, the College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor is building software tools that can be used by design novices to create models for their own structures—tools so easy to use that she likens them to a PowerPoint program for custom-shape manufacturing.

What could you make with tools like that? The sky’s the limit. Whiting herself has already used software tools like these to manufacture exact, to-scale replicas of her favorite rock-climbing routes so that she can improve her bouldering technique by training on the replicas and analyzing the most efficient climbing motions.

Whiting was recently chosen by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for a 2019 Sloan Research Fellowship, one of 126 outstanding US and Canadian researchers. The fellowship honors the most promising early-career scholars in their fields. She will use funds from her Sloan Research Fellowship to further advance the use of computer graphics in manufacturing.

BU Today: What came first, your love for art or software?
Whiting: The love for art was there first; it’s been there for as long as I can remember, essentially. Some of my first fascinations with the arts foreshadowed my later interests in logical structure and mathematical underpinnings—I really enjoyed origami. Origami is an area of research in mathematics and robotics, but at an early age I was really into modular origami, which is folding many pieces of paper and assembling them into a larger final structure.

So then how did software come into the picture for you?
My first introduction to computer graphics was in high school. I was interested in learning about CAD drafting software and computer animation. Later, as an undergraduate researcher at the National Research Council of Canada, I worked on digital reconstructions for preserving cultural heritage, specifically historical Italian architecture. That involved traveling to Trento, Italy, to take tons of photos of medieval castle sites and then reconstructing them, three dimensionally, inside a computer program.

Your group is called the Shape Lab—what exactly do you hope to shape with your research?
I’m very interested in how art, engineering, and technology are intertwined, how those aspects can inform each other. I think in terms of lasting impact, the technology we’re working on would bring those ideas together so that aesthetics and function can be a unified goal. We want properties of materials and structures to be embedded in design tools, so there’s no separation between designers and engineers. There are many different areas we want to have impact—one current area of collaboration is in health and rehabilitation, working with other faculty at BU Sargent College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences. Shape customization is incredibly important to the success of orthopedic products, prosthetics, etc.

Where do you draw inspiration?
I try to keep an open mind and stay as aware as I can in my daily activities. I have a two-year-old daughter and we go to the Boston Children’s Museum, which is full of fabulous educational activities that I find inspiring—issues having to do with physics, such as the surface tension of bubbles or the dynamics of golf balls. Much of my past work is also informed by historical sources; my PhD was motivated by gothic cathedrals and the architectural building practices that were used at the time.

How does rock climbing play into your research?
My lab has actually published a paper on reconstructing outdoor rock-climbing routes—the hardest routes from a famous climbing area in Rumney, N.H.—that allowed us to better train and learn how to navigate difficult terrain. We worked on bouldering problems pertaining to climbs that are shorter in height, but done without ropes or harnesses. We reconstructed routes ranging from around three to four meters in height—true to scale—so that climbers could try the routes indoors to compare the most effective motions. It was a lot of fun; it’s not so common that research in computer science will have you hiking through the woods to collect data.

Do you have a favorite structure or designer?
Antoni Gaudí has been very influential in my work. He was a pioneer in a physical computing procedure using hanging chains to find structural forms. There’s this shape called the catenary, which a hanging chain will form under its own self weight—it’s a shape of pure tension. If you flip that hanging chain upside down, it gives you the ideal scenario for a stone arch of pure compression. Gaudí explored the designs of his buildings using networks of hanging chains, which you can see at the Sagrada Família.

Kat J. McAlpine can be reached at katjmcal@bu.edu.

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