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Boston ‘bluing’ trip highlights synthetic biology, biotechnology for AFRL team

  • Published
  • By Marisa Alia-Novobilski
  • Air Force Research Laboratory

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio –  A select group of scientists and engineers from the Air Force Research Laboratory traveled to the Boston region to see emerging capabilities centered on synthetic biology to better understand the potential of this growing field of science to improve materials for today’s Airmen.

“The goals of this trip were to develop our people and to get a feel for where we fit in this materials ecosystem,” said Col. Charles Ormsby, Director, Materials and Manufacturing Directorate, AFRL. “It’s an opportunity for us to learn more about what is going on in the scientific community and to find opportunities for new collaborations.”

The three-day trip included visits to the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Systems Center, Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, Ginkgo Bioworks, the Foundry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the MIT-Broad Institute, MITRE Corporation and Human Systems Integration. The diversity of the stops, spanning military research, academia and industry provided an interesting perspective on the broad intersections between ongoing research efforts in the Department of Defense and the wider biotechnology domain.

“Technology being developed in academia and industry can be applied to military problems,” said Dr. Timothy Bunning, Chief Scientist at the Materials and Manufacturing Directorate and trip attendee. “Different approaches and wisdom from the outside can help us lead, discover, develop and deliver the next generation of technology even faster.”

The Materials and Manufacturing Directorate uses ‘bluing trips’ to expose military and civilian Airmen to missions and organizations outside of the employee’s regular operational duties as a means for developing greater understanding of their role in the larger Air Force environment. For the AFRL, bluing trips provide an opportunity to bridge stronger technical connections between leadership, researchers and customers, and simultaneously provide insight to work being done in industry, academia and other service labs that can be leveraged for future Air Force research efforts.

At the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Systems Center, the materials-focused AFRL team was exposed to wider synthetic biology applications in soldier nutrition and health. Self-healing materials, 3-D printed food and high performance exoskeletons for enhanced soldier performance are just a few of the diverse projects the AFRL team learned about, many of which have broad future applications across DOD as a whole.

“We look for opportunities to integrate with others in research and development,” said Dr. Ramanthan Nagarajan, the Senior Scientist for Soldier Nanomaterials at the Natick Soldier Research, Development, and Engineering Center. “Hosting this visit provides us with another opportunity to see where we can further our collaborations with the AFRL.”

Visits to Ginkgo Bioworks and MIT-Broad Foundry exposed the AFRL researchers to state-of-the-art biotechnology activities that enable large scale biological engineering. The work in these foundries aims to produce new organisms as well as a better understanding of biological prototypes that may lead to breakthroughs in medical treatments, advanced functional materials and new enzymes for consumer products and applications.

At the Wyss Institute, the AFRL researchers gained a better understanding of the way principles inherent in biology such as self-assembly, organization and regulation can be used to create disruptive technological solutions for healthcare, energy, robotics and more.

“I am an engineer by trade, so learning about engineering from the biological perspective was really eye-opening,” said Amber Gilbert, a research engineer at AFRL. “Understanding the trade space between biology and traditional engineering will definitely enhance my future work and approach to new projects.”

A visit to the Human Systems Integration (HSI) demonstrated the power of a small focused team to deliver innovative, next generation technologies. A current collaboration between AFRL and HSI is working to design the next generation military flight suit using integrated, flexible hybrid electronics for human performance monitoring.

“We structured this trip to highlight some of our existing collaborations in the lab, but we also tried to show some new, potential areas for future collaborations,” said Dr. Mitchell Meade, a research scientist on the Biological Materials and Processes Team at AFRL and the trip organizer. “It’s hard to understand the wide breadth of collaborations we have with academia and industry until you get out of the lab to see them on your own.”

The intense, three day trip provided not only insight to new potential capabilities, but it also provided time for teambuilding and camaraderie, a key aspect to maintaining the strong workforce culture that drives the success of the AFRL.

“This was a great opportunity to learn more about synthetic biology, but more importantly, we continued to strengthen our ‘one-AFRL’ team,” said Col. Ormsby. “Bringing smart people closer together is just one way we can continue to create the best next-generation materials for our Airmen.”