UNM students pushing boundaries in biodesign for a sustainable future

By Mariah Rosales


A team of University of New Mexico BioArt and design students led by Fine Arts Professor Andrea Polli competed in the Biodesign Challenge in New York City from June 22 to June 24, 2023. This prestigious international competition at the forefront of BioArt and design brings together talented students from universities around the world to showcase groundbreaking solutions and creative applications of biology, technology, and design.

The Biodesign Challenge serves as a platform for multidisciplinary teams to explore innovative applications of biotechnology and design solutions that address pressing global challenges. This annual event invites students from various educational backgrounds, including art, design, biology, and engineering, to collaborate and develop projects that integrate biology, sustainability, and social impact. By encouraging the convergence of art and science, the challenge aims to push the boundaries of traditional disciplines and foster unique perspectives on problem-solving.

Polli teaches a BioArt and Design course that emphasizes the intersection of art, biology, and technology, and has provided the foundation for the competition team’s creative and innovative projects. The team consists of four BioArt and Design students - Shai Nootenboom, Devin Pacheco, Cassidy Summers, and Nathaniel Gonzales. Summers and Gonzales will not be able to attend the challenge, but Nootenboom and Pacheco have secured their spots; Art History and BioArt and Design lab faculty member Amy Pilling will also be joining them on their trip to New York City. Fulbright Scholar and BioArtist Marta De Menezes also worked with the students during this project.

"We are thrilled to be part of such an inspiring event. The Biodesign Challenge brings together some of the brightest minds in BioArt and design, and we are confident that our projects will make an impact. We have worked tirelessly to develop innovative solutions, and we believe our ideas have the potential to revolutionize the way we approach sustainability and design,” says Pacheco.

The University of New Mexico awarded Nootenboom and Pacheco the prestigious Department of Art scholarship in recognition of their immense talent and potential. This provided the necessary financial support for their journey to the Biodesign Challenge in New York City. This scholarship demonstrates the university's commitment to fostering innovation, creativity, and interdisciplinary collaboration among its students.

Nootenboom and Pacheco have embarked on an ambitious project for the Biodesign Challenge, aiming to revolutionize water management with their innovative concept of smart acequia systems. Nootenboom says, “Attending the Biodesign Challenge is a tremendous opportunity for us to showcase the power of interdisciplinary collaboration. Our goal is to create awareness and inspire change by merging biology, art, and design.” Their project focuses on harnessing cutting-edge technology to optimize the utilization of acequias, traditional irrigation channels used in arid regions for centuries. “We hope to challenge traditional notions of sustainability and demonstrate how nature-inspired solutions can pave the way for a more harmonious and eco-conscious future," continues Nootenboom.

Drawing inspiration from their home state of New Mexico, where acequias play a vital role in sustaining agricultural practices, Nootenboom and Pacheco recognized the potential to enhance efficiency and promote sustainable water usage. With their deep appreciation for the traditional systems, they sought to integrate modern technology and create a seamless bridge between tradition and innovation.

Nootenboom and Pacheco's project involves converting valuable data collected from acequias, such as radar sensor readings, flow rate, and depth measurements, into a user-friendly mobile application. By transforming complex information into easily accessible data points, the smart acequia app allows farmers and water managers to monitor and manage water resources with greater precision and convenience. The app acts as a comprehensive tool, empowering users to make informed decisions regarding irrigation practices, water allocation, and conservation efforts. By providing real-time data and analysis, the app enables farmers to optimize water usage, reduce wastage, and increase agricultural productivity, all while preserving the rich cultural heritage embedded within traditional acequia systems.

Nootenboom and Pacheco's participation in this international event not only showcases their ingenuity but also highlights the university's dedication to promoting interdisciplinary education and fostering sustainable solutions. With their innovative project, Nootenboom and Pacheco are poised to make a significant contribution to the Biodesign Challenge, demonstrating the power of interdisciplinary collaboration, technology, and cultural preservation in addressing global challenges.


*The team successfully completed the 2023 Biodesign Challenge, and their work was well received. "They had a great experience participating and will participate again next year" says Polli.