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Lab Crosses Boundaries

By Bethina Liu, Crimson Staff Writer

The Northwest Science Building came to life with curious crowds on April 30.

“Play it. Light it. Dance it,” was the theme of the night at this unconventional lab, where a silent rave had students breaking barriers in science. It was The Laboratory’s latest event, which brought iPods and LEDs together to explore the intersections between science, music, and the visual arts.

Such interdisciplinary endeavors are typical of The Lab’s events and exhibitions. The Lab is a platform for experimentation—a place to share and develop ideas, it encourages creativity among students and the community at large, holding interdisciplinary exploration and collaboration at the heart of its philosophies, says W. Hugo Van Vuuren ’07, a fellow at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and The Lab.

In collaboration with the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.), The Lab hopes to bring together art and science—two often-contentious disciplines—in a synergistic way.

A dance is just the beginning. The Lab organizers say they hope that this three-year pilot that arose in November out of the syllabus of an engineering class will expand to bridge the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences with the Graduate School of Design.

“It’s all about crossing the boundaries,” says Jessica S. Lin ’09, a fellow at The Lab and a former Crimson associate photo editor.


The lower level of the Northwest Science Building was as quiet as any library reading room.

The silent ravers, with LEDs attached to the different parts of the body, moved about in their own dance styles while listening to their individual tracks.

Slow shutter speed cameras recorded the movement of the LEDs, projecting these images across the room to convert dance into light.

The objective of it all? To visualize music through light photography.

Making use of conventional artistic disciplines such as dance, music, and photography, The Lab looked to map out commonalities in the way in which people dance to certain genres of music, says Allegra E. Libonati, artistic fellow at the A.R.T. who worked with The Lab to develop and organize the experiment.

Though the event’s turnout fell short of expectations, Van Vuuren deemed the rave a success.

“Clearly Harvard has too many events and House formals in the late Spring period for us to have pulled thousands of people, but we were very happy with the untraditional nature of the event and the media that was created,” Van Vuuren says.

In order to take part in this unique experiment, The Lab asked the participants—both graduates and undergraduates—to follow a three-step instructional guide in preparation: pre-download the four playlists off The Lab’s website, bring an MP3 player, and show up to make art.


Conceived by Harvard Biomedical Engineering Professor David A. Edwards, The Laboratory at Harvard opened last November alongside a series of successful initiatives.

The global company Le Whif may be their strongest showing, selling inhalable chocolate that Edwards invented several months before the establishment of The Lab.

Following such success, however, The Lab is looking towards an uncertain future.

It has partnerships with six organizations across the University, including GSD and SEAS, but has retained an independent existence, receiving funding from each of its partner organizations.

By its third year, reads The Labs’ website, the initiative expects that “the engineering school and the design school will make the lab at Harvard a part of the curriculum.”

“We are beginning to explore, with the encouragement of the deans of SEAS and the GSD, how The Lab might evolve into a longer-term design and innovation resource for courses more broadly on campus, and particularly in SEAS and GSD,” Edwards writes in an e-mail to The Crimson.

But according to Van Vuuren, The Lab’s uniquely independent position may work either for or against its final reevaluation at the end of the three-year experimentation period.

He also added that The Lab plans to use the coming two years to spread its influence across campus.

“Nearing the end of the first year, I think it can be said that we’re all very delighted with how the experiment has gone,” Edwards writes. “Over the next couple years we will broaden the programming and hopefully see one or two more lasting exhibitions with national and even international resonance.”

“It’s an exciting time at Harvard,” Lin says. “Everyone is trying to reach out to different fields.”


The Lab originated from a SEAS class that students describe as a Willy Wonka-like factory, taught by Edwards, the Le Whif-inventing professor.

Engineering Sciences 147: “Idea Translation: Effecting Change through the Arts and Sciences” is a fall term class that focuses on how “idea creations evolve from a passionate will to effect change,” according to the course description.

Nworah B. Ayogu ’10 attended the class and has continued to be involved with The Lab. He describes Edwards as chic and eccentric. “I would love to see the inside of his mind,” he says.

The Lab, Ayogu explains, offers a niche for his unique scientific approach. “Think Willy Wonka meets science, and we all sort of have the golden tickets,” Ayogu says.

Ayogu is currently part of a group that is in the process of developing an SMS mobile technology that assesses the seriousness of illnesses by a diagnostic algorithm that deciphers the patient’s medical emergencies through text messaging.

“We believe that patients can be empowered to care for [themselves],” says Ayogu.

This summer, Ayogu will be conducting a pilot study of the project along with his group members, each of whom comes from a different academic background.

In its first experimental year, The Lab has extended across the academic fields of the University.

This semester, in addition to the Silent LED Rave, The Lab has helped host a series of panels and exhibitions, including “Sex, America,” a VES thesis exhibition in collaboration with Nayeli E. Rodriguez ’10, a former Crimson arts editor, and Cambridge Science Festival’s “Big Ideas for Busy People,” as it unites the sciences with the arts at Harvard.

“It’s about identifying what resources you have and what gaps you have, and you reach out,” says Ayogu, a neurobiology concentrator. “We leverage each other’s skills and work together towards a common goal.”

—Staff Writer Bethina Liu can be reached at

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