Artist-Engineer Jie Qi Lights the Imagination

Jie Qi, an avid crafter and skilled engineer, has found a new way to define electronics. By combining her self-professed love of paper with her abilities to create flexible electronic circuits (“soft circuits”), Qi has created a wide range of projects, from beautiful pieces of art to interactive pop-up books.

Qi, a colleague and good friend of the Building and Programming Intelligent Machines class teacher Natalie Freed, came to talk to Lick-Wilmerding’s Future Women Engineers club.  With her lively personality and a messenger bag full of her smaller paper inventions, Qi showed a self-powered circuit sketchbook, which allows working circuits to be built directly onto the pages of the Moleskine; a flexible breadboard that looks akin to a sheet of stickers; and an adorable hand-drawn interactive thank-you card with a light-up robot on the cover. When the robot’s glowing red heart is pushed, its cheeks also light up. Qi also queued up a video of a interactive dandelion ink painting (inspired by Chinese calligraphy paintings) that she had created, titled “Pu Gong Ying Tu.” LED lights create the outlines for the dandelions whose petals, when blown on, disperse out into the rest of the painting. In the video, Qi surprises viewers by pulling back the first layer of the painting to reveal an intricate circuit behind, crafted from copper tape and wind sensors.

Qi demonstrated how electronic inventions can be seen as works of art. She views her work as a story; she probed the audience to ask themselves, “Why do you care to give this [project] electricity to turn it on?”

Interestingly enough, Qi originally had no intention of becoming an artist-engineer. After interning at a hospital and seeing the patients come in and out of the operating rooms, she originally planned on becoming a surgeon. With her love for biology, she began studying tissue engineering at Columbia University. She was fascinated by how proteins could be used to stimulate cells to grow. She soon began an internship at a research lab, but it wasn’t what she had hoped for. After years of “straight pipetting,” as Qi said, she realized that her true passion involved the art of creating. Along with her internship at the research lab, Qi found work via Craigslist at the Lumenhouse sculpture studio in Brooklyn, New York. She realized that her interest in tissue engineering was similar to her love for art because both mediums involved smaller components creating something larger, such as cells in a body or strokes on a painting. Her weekly schedule included four days at the research lab and two days at the sculpture studio. But sometime between her sophomore and junior year of college, she came to a “personal epiphany” and realized that “creative things were fundamental to [her] happiness.” She changed her major to mechanical engineering and never looked back.

From there, Qi discovered the Eyebeam Art + Technology Center in New York, which focused on the blend of art and technology. Qi recalled being “mind blown. You can combine engineering and art?” At the time, she hadn’t considered the field of electronics, but she was so eager to be a part of the Eyebeam community that she was willing to learn. She soon became a part of the littleBits project at Eyebeam, where she worked with artist Ayah Bedair to create electronic components that could be used by those with little engineering skill to play around with.

Eventually, Qi was introduced to the M.I.T. Media Lab program. After receiving an open invitation to become a part of the program, she made her way to Boston, where she currently is a Ph.D. student working for the Media Lab as a part of the High-Low Tech Group.

Qi’s presentation ended with a short Q&A session; Andrew Kleindolph asked the quintessential artists’ question: “How do you make your rent?” Qi laughed and gave an honest reply: “As a researcher, you’re funded just enough so that your schooling becomes your job.” But ultimately, she emphasized, “being okay with just getting by” was something she was willing to do in order to live out her passion.

To see more of Qi’s creative inventions, check out her website at technolojie.com

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