Fashioning the Future With: Lucy Dunne

Image/Lucy Dunne

Image/Lucy Dunne

Waltzing wasabi, we've got a real-life wizard of wearable technology on the blog today! Meet Dr. Lucy Dunne. Lucy, who has a PhD in Computer Science, is the Professor of Apparel Design and Wearable Technology at the University of Minnesota where she founded and co-directs the school's incredible Wearable Technology Lab. How absolutely awesome is that?

Fun fact: Today's interview is also an extra-special one as I've actually been in touch with Lucy since 2015 about her wearable technology prowess. ICYMI: Style Engineers Worldwide began as an entry in a competition called The Next MacGyver where my concept for "Doctor Tailor" was a finalist. I'd learned about Lucy's completely cool career from her rad sister some years ago and had been cooking up wearable technology ideas ever since. That competition lead to Global Tinker's development of Doctor Tailor into the graphic novel series/STEM resource it is today.

Now for even more fun facts about this wearable tech superstar: NASA awarded her the Silver Achievement Medal in 2013 for her work in developing the NASA Wearable Technology Cluster. Pirouetting peaches, how impressive is that? And, among other accolades, Lucy is also the recipient of the National Science Foundation’s CAREER award and the Titan of Technology award from the Minneapolis-St Paul Business Journal. Lucy even co-authored the book on wearable tech: Functional Apparel Design: From Sportswear to Space Suits.

Image/The Wearable Technology Lab’s ‘Persuasive Clothing’ device that sends a nudge to encourage behavior

Image/The Wearable Technology Lab’s ‘Persuasive Clothing’ device that sends a nudge to encourage behavior

Her cool factors do not stop there: Lucy founded and runs Style Engineers, a group for kids aged 10 to 15 to learn about STEM through fashion. At the University of Minnesota, Lucy's students work with Blue House Uganda to make clothes for girls in need. That's some amazing work in #TechForGood!

So, basically, we've got an IRL wearable tech superhero on the blog today, and we are thrilled to share her Q&A with you. Read on to find out Dr. Lucy Dunne's thoughts on what's next in wearable tech, her advice to girls who want to go into STEM, what her own personal style is like, and more!

Image/Lucy Dunne and space suit

Image/Lucy Dunne and space suit

Did you have any favorite scientists or was there a particular scientist who inspired you as a kid?

Growing up I can't remember any specific real people (I did really love Lois Lane, though!), but as an adult I've discovered so many amazing scientists. Hedy Lamarr, Nicola Tesla, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Ada Lovelace, Anita Borg... there are so many people to be inspired by. I love imagining what it was like for them at the times they were working and making discoveries.

What inspired you to pursue (and co-write the book on!) functional apparel design?

I went to college for fashion design, and had a class on functional clothing that really changed my direction. My professor in that course (Laurie Welch) was a student of Susan Watkins, who I co-wrote the book with. Susan is a legend in herself: she basically invented the field of functional clothing design, and created the program at Cornell. She retired before I started studying there, but indirectly it's because of her that I ever ended up doing this. She's an incredible, smart, classy lady. With a great sense of humor! 

Image/Style Engineers

Image/Style Engineers

What was your inspiration to found Style Engineers?

Style Engineers was a collaboration between me and a team at Cornell (Susan Ashdown, Fran Kozen, and Kristen Morris). I think it basically came from us noticing that most people in functional apparel ended up there by chance -- it's not something you know about in Middle School. At the same time, that's the age that girls start opting out of engineering and science careers. We thought there was an opportunity to showcase STEM roles that aren't so stereotypically "male" -- functional apparel designers are as much engineers as roboticists are, but people don't necessarily think of that.  

What has been the most rewarding part of Style Engineers?

 Getting to know the girls, definitely! We've been doing this long enough that some of our first Middle School girls are about to go to college -- some of them with us in my program! They're already getting real-world design internships at places like Target. That part is really exciting, I love watching them live their dreams!

What was the process like in founding The Wearable Technology Lab at the University of Minnesota?

I guess it grew pretty naturally -- I founded the lab when I was hired at the University of Minnesota, and it grew bit by bit, student by student, project by project. When we hired Brad Holschuh to co-direct the lab 2 years ago, things grew a lot faster. When we started it was just me and one student, now we have about 15 students, 2 directors, and a lab manager. Great students are the key to everything: we're always looking for smart, creative, hard-working students!

Do you have a certain apparel design class to that’s your favorite to teach?

It's so hard to pick a favorite... right now I teach two really fun classes. One is about functional clothing and wearable technology, and the students spend the semester solving problems for NASA. At the end of the semester we travel to Houston to present the projects to NASA engineers at Johnson Space Center. My other favorite class is about mass-manufacturing of clothing. In the course, students learn how a design goes from an illustration to a stack of clothes on the rack in a store. I love factories -- all kinds of factories, but especially sewing factories -- so I think it's really fun to be able to set up our own little factory in the apparel studio. 

Can you talk a little bit about your work and your students work with Blue House Uganda?

We work with the Blue House through the mass-manufacturing course. We produce a lot of clothes (about 500 garments!) in that class, which is where the Blue House comes in -- we need someone to make them for! The girls in the Blue House are mostly orphans, and they almost never get new clothing. Every year we make things that they need, but this year we're actually making clothes that the girls designed themselves, which is extra fun.

What do you think is the most exciting/promising thing happening in the realm of wearable technology today?

Image/Lucy Dunne testing firefighter gear

Image/Lucy Dunne testing firefighter gear

Well, I think it's exciting that in the time I've been working on this topic it has gone from something that was basically a really futuristic thing that no one imagined would be used by everyday people, to being something everyone has heard of and most people have tried out. At the moment when people think of "wearable technology" they think of things like smart watches and activity trackers -- I think the next exciting thing will be expanding what wearable technology is and can do. I'm looking forward to technology changing the way we buy and use clothing. Imagine if you only owned a few garments, but those garments could change shape and color and be anything you wanted them to be. That would totally change the way we think about what clothing is and does. 

What advice do you have for young people, especially girls in middle and high school, who want to go into a STEM field?

Do it! There are sooooo many different careers you can have in STEM -- it's not all about biology lab and robots. I think one thing people don't realize is how creative STEM careers can be, and how much science and engineering is a part of almost everything we do.

We have a lot of superhero and space travel stories to enjoy right now. What movie or TV show do you think represents wearable technology the best?

Hmmmm good question. I don't watch too much TV, so there might be some good ones out there. For space movies I get hung up on movies that are too unrealistic. I liked The Martian because it was a little closer to realistic. I really liked Hidden Figures because it showed how much went into getting astronauts to the Moon (especially with the technology we had back then), and how risky it was!

Image/Lucy Dunne as a superhero

Image/Lucy Dunne as a superhero

Who are your favorite fashion designers?

My students, of course :) For wearable technology, Hussein Chalayan worked with a fantastic Mechatronic Engineer, Moritz Waldemeyer. You should check out the art and fashion he makes with tiny machines and electronics: it's amazing! 

How would you define your personal style?

Ironically, my personal taste runs more to vintage than to future. I live in a 118-yr-old house, I love music and movies of the 1930s, and my fashion sense tends toward the 1930s and 1950s.  Go figure!

If you were a superhero, what would your go-to wearable tech device be?

Tough choice! Either an invisibility cloak or a jetpack. Unless we can figure out how to download information straight to your brain, in which case that would be the one for me! 

To keep up with Dr. Lucy Dunne, check out her Wearable Technology Lab and be sure to follow her on Twitter!

Kristen O. BobstComment