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Congratulations to Dr Melissa Sterry, DRS Fellow

Congratulations to Dr Melissa Sterry, DRS Fellow

The DRS would like to congratulate Dr Melissa Sterry for her appointment as a DRS Fellow! Below, you'll find a short Q&A, where we asked Melissa about her transdisciplinary career in practice-based research and scholarly practice research and her thoughts on getting involved with the DRS as the Society's newest fellow.


How do you do design research? What is your work about?

My research principally involves asking how living systems work materially, informationally, and structurally. Understanding these systems allows us to then examine how, where, and why we might mimic them to address the challenges presented by climate change, natural hazards, biodiversity loss, resource shortages, and pollution. Rather than work with generic notions of that very subjective construct known as ‘nature’, I examine how life forms, particularly plants, work from the molecular level upwards and across deep time – what you might think of as not just evolutionary, but geological timescales. Though my research involves exploring how mimicking living systems can inform and inspire new approaches to design generally, I’m particularly interested in pyrophytes, which are plants that have evolved to coexist with wildfire. Lately, I’ve been researching and developing a resilience paradigm that involves synchronising architectural and urban systems that are situated at the interface of wildlands with the frequencies, intensities, and behaviours of the wildfires that are native to those lands. The paradigm challenges existing wildfire resilience practices, and proposes that, like pyrophytes, buildings and infrastructure at the wildland-urban-interface persist through one of three qualitatively distinct approaches – endure, evade, or resist – wherein materiality is not permanent, but cyclical. Consequently, the research involves examining how you build buildings to ultimately burn to the ground in a way that doesn't harm the environment, while simultaneously protecting the lives and the most treasured items people own. While it sounds like an extreme idea, it’s not novel. Since the Bronze Age, if not before, many peoples that have lived in fire-prone places have built in this way. The difference today is that we have umpteen new ways in which we can design and build, including an array of bio and other sensors, data processing, distribution technologies, materials, engineering systems and more. I think by splicing old approaches with new discoveries and technologies, we can create in a way that meets our needs, without compromising those of the many other species with which we share the planet.

As both a researcher and practitioner of design, I think the most interesting ideas tend to come from yet-to-be-understood areas – those spaces where new scientific discoveries, new technologies and new thinking enable us to venture into the conceptual unknown. The natural world is still full of unknowns: with every passing week, somewhere, someone (more usually a team) discovers something extra-ordinary, be it some previously unknown property of a natural material, how some mysterious biological intelligence works, a new species, or even life form. The non-human world is limitless in its capacity to surprise us. While much of the discussion around biodesign and other bio-disciplines relates to issues of sustainability and ethics, the natural world was humanity’s first source of design inspiration, and it is by far the most culturally ubiquitous. A veritable library of design ideas at our disposal, it’s also accessible to one and all – wherever you are there is always some species, system or process you can observe, night or day, on land, sea, or air.

How do I conduct my design research? Using many and varied tools, some traditional, some not. Both as a researcher and practitioner, I work with mixed methodologies. The appeal of this approach is firstly, as relating to the problems I seek to solve, it tends to yield more comprehensive and robust results, both conceptually and technically. But, I also like mixed methods because creatively I find them more interesting. They tend to afford a greater capacity for experimentation than the application of linear research approaches. I also work transdisciplinary, wherein I never investigate a problem through one disciplinary lens, but through the lenses of the sciences, humanities, arts, and design. This is partly because, though I’m more attracted to scientific and artistic pursuits, all design problems need to factor in human behaviour and the thinking that drives it. Unless we research how and why people will likely respond to this or that design concept, we can’t fully understand its real-world potential. This issue is especially pertinent when seeking to find design solutions to complex and global problems of the fast-unfolding kind. The challenge of embracing mixed methods approaches, particularly when integrating new and novel ones, is that your learning process needs to be ongoing. While I find it much easier to use methods I’ve used in the past, after a while, usually a very short one, I get bored. Challenging oneself to be constantly evolving and expanding one’s skills keeps things exciting.

How has the DRS supported your career and/or research in design and design studies? 

I find DRS is particularly good for identifying research opportunities for more experimental research. The DRS has a ‘less is more’ approach, wherein it brings the funding bids that count to its members’ awareness, while leaving out the less relevant stuff. DRS is likewise very focused in the events it promotes and its content more generally. This is because it understands its membership, their activities, interests, and needs.

What are some of the benefits, in your view, of becoming a DRS Fellow? Why might others want to become a DRS Fellow? 

Design research is one of those fields that sits not at the centre, but at the edges of disciplines. Essentially a hybrid, it’s not a research field that’s well served by many traditional institutions and societies, many of which still treat the activities involved in design research in a siloed way. DRS is filling the gap in a focused way. Be it that a design researcher is looking for funding, publishing, or other opportunities, DRS is a discerning source of information. Added to this, its membership network is useful, because while there are many academic and other networks, they are far less focused, and because of that, they aren’t always useful if you’re looking to connect with experts in the design research field. For those looking to meet other design researchers, and to get a good idea of who else is out there, the DRS is ideal.

Where can people find out more about you and your research?

People can find out more about me and my research at the following websites.

Did you know that we have made changes to our Fellowship nomination process? The process now allows for both self-nomination and nomination by any current member or Fellow of the Society. Head here to find out more about how to apply for a DRS Fellowship.

 February 15, 2022