Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Prototype of the Manuscript DNA Extractor Now Sits on My Desk

On Tuesday I went to Northwestern University of meet with the team of engineers* who have worked for the past twenty weeks to bring into being my idea of a device to non-destructively extract DNA from medieval manuscripts. Working at the Segal Design Institute under the direction of Professors Stacy Benjamin and Barbara Shwom and advised by Kiki Zissimopoulos, and with some occasional input from me, Caroline Dougherty, Rahul Jain, Regan Radcliffe and Mimi Zou designed a simple machine that can insert a tiny needle into the edge of a manuscript leaf without leaving any marks that can be seen by the naked eye.

It was really a great, great experience to work with these students over many weeks and then to head out to Northwestern (where my wife did her Ph.D.) and see their presentation. The design is simple but sophisticated, and the final report includes testing data, complete drawings and a beautifully written explanation of how they arrived at the design, why it is a good one, and where it might go in the future. I was blown away not only by the quality of the engineering, but by how incredibly professional these students are. If I were recruiting for a company right now, I would hire them all, in a heartbeat. The prototype is elegant, and it's one of those well-made little machines that you can't keep your hands off. Considering that my first drawing was literally done on an envelope, and that I didn't even scan if for them but took a digital photo and emailed it, their ability to see the good idea at the heart of the mess I gave them and refine it over multiple iterations shows that they really learned their craft, and that Northwestern taught them well.

What Northwestern has done with their engineering program is remarkable. From a freshman design course that is completely integrated with their writing requirements (which may be why these students are good writers and communicators as well as good engineers), to the Ford design building, in which a complete shop floor, with bandsaws, lathes, etc., etc., is not only the center of the place, but visually the center of everything... It makes me want to go back to school to be an engineer (and if you have a kid thinking about going to college for engineering, you owe it to that kid--and to yourself--to check out this program; it integrates 'hands on' work with all the math, computer-assisted design, etc., you expect from engineering, and the students all seemed to be having a blast).

As for the extractor, plus the rest of the Sheep DNA project, we are getting pretty close. Now that we have a prototype, we need to figure out how to refine it and to manufacture it inexpensively (I'll be working with another team of engineers next year, I hope). And, from the biochemical side, we are about half an order of magnitude away from where we want to be: We thus far seem to need about 10 mg of material, and we really would like that to be 5 (though the extractor could extract 10 mg without too much trouble; just iterate the sampling).

Now I think my next job is going to be convincing librarians that a set of 40-micron diameter holes in the edge (even the binding edge) of a MSS is acceptable. I think what I will do is to sample my own manuscript leaf, hand it to librarians, and ask them if they can figure out, even using a magnifying glass, where the samples were taken. If they can't maybe they'll be willing to let me sample one folio from each quire in a MSS or two.

This plan assumes that we can get the biochemistry working (and if anyone has a contact with a "Clean Lab" that handles ancient DNA, let me know, please). If we can, we will be pretty close to being off to the races, especially since the team of computer scientists I'm working with are well on their way to having the manuscript database and visualization tool going.

The collaboration with Northwestern got started because Prof. Greg Olsen, of the Steel Research Group, asked me for specifications for the sword that would be required to slay a dragon. The Dragonslayer sword (which when finished will be the hardest in the history of the world, and will also contain meteorite iron) is coming along, as is a Beowulfian Seax, which the group made this year. And in return for some minor consulting about the Seax, Prof. Olsen connected me with Prof. Benjamin and the Segal Design Institute. I'm really grateful to him, and to all the people that have contributed to this insane project, which may well just end up working. Keep your fingers crossed, though, because there are still a lot of challenges ahead of us.

* Doing transdisciplinary research is worth it solely for being able to write "...a team of engineers" in relation to one of my projects.


Carl Anderson said...

The Manuscript DNA Extractor sounds -- simply put -- awesome, and the whole Sheep DNA Project thing promises to open new doors in MS study and add new dimensions to our understandings of texts.

As for the Dragonslayer sword and Beowulfian saex ... shouldn't you have them working on a haeftmece? Or even a heptisax? :)

Anonymous said...

I have to admit that when I saw the phrase:

The Dragonslayer sword (which when finished will be the hardest in the history of the world, and will also contain meteorite iron) is coming along

I had briefly to consider the possibility that Wormtalk and Slugspeak might actually be an incredibly elaborate hoax that's been slowly pushing the boat away from the shore of plausibility all this time. Prof. Drout, you work on the stuff of fantasy, I am in awe.