witches knickers


“There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it.” This line from The Graduate captured the 20th century hope and opportunity surrounding this new class of flexible and inexpensive materials. Derived from the Greek plastikos, to mold or form, plastics freed design from the constraints of natural materials.  Whether naturally derived and first imitating biological materials, as in 19th c. celluloid, or derived from petroleum and untethered from nature as in 1950s polyolefin hulahoops, polymeric materials represented a new kind of freedom and flexibility. Now plastics are so prevalent in nearly every object in the world around us, associated with food, clothing, and shelter, that we barely notice them.  In fact, plastic is ubiquitous not only as a material but as a metaphor, including new forms of biological design and adaptation that we could never have anticipated before. With stem cells and neuroplasticity come a newfound appreciation for the ways that we are not fixed and determined, but mutable creatures, our cells and brains constantly adapting and responding to environmental and experiential cues.  These advances, combined with others in polymer design, synthesis, fabrication and nanomedicine create hopeful possibilities for disease treatment, regeneration and repair, and have profound implications for learning and policy as well.  But along with increased awareness of the interplay between the designed and natural world and improvements in analytical tools and technologies, longstanding ambivalence and apprehension about plastic is strengthened too. A lifecycle analysis of plastic reveals often petrochemical origins, voracious consumption, and its presence in unintended places, the ocean, urban landscapes and our bodies, underscoring that sustainability is a multifaceted concept and begging for renewable and biocompatible alternatives.  While plastic/ity is modern, freeing, and state-of-the-art, it is also cheap and artificial imitation. We wonder sometimes whether we have taken our unleashed freedom and flexibility too far in refashioning our world and our very selves. The Plastic Project is an interdisciplinary workshop and network of people who will explore together thrilling scientific discoveries and design possibilities, along with environmental, health, and societal impacts.



Plastic in the Environment: Exterior Design

  • Cultural history of plastic  (Jeffrey Meikle, American Plastic)
  • Polymer chemistry (petrochemicals vs biopolymers—bioderived, biocompatible, biodegradable)
  • Plastic objects (designed world; architecture, consumables)
  • Credit cards (credit crisis, consumption, designed obsolescence)
  • Trash (landfills; witches knickers/plastic bag bans; Great Pacific garbage patch)
  • Artist/scientist/engineer/educator/activist speaker

Plastic(ity) in the Body: Interior Design

  • Environmental health (plastic chemical exposures: bis phenol A, flame retardants)
  • Biomaterials (tissue engineering, drug delivery, implanted devices, nanomedicine)
  • Cellular plasticity (stem cells, regenerative medicine)
  • Neuroplasticity (science, policy, learning, aging)
  • Plastic surgery (wound healing, redesign, reconstruction)
  • Gender plasticity (cultural and scientific dimensions)
  • Identity/social plasticity (exploring alternative identities and communities)



  • Anne Johnson, Director, Sustainable Packaging Coalition, GreenBlue, Charlottesville—Thurs Oct 1, 9:30-10:45 am, Chem 262, cosponsored with Chem 7510 Materials Chemistry
  • Arlene Blum, Director, Green Policy Institute, author, and history-making mountain climber, Talk 1: "Climbing Your Own Everests" Leadership Lunch, Thurs, Oct 15, 12-1:30, Alumni Hall. Talk 2: "The Fire Retardant Dilemma: Fire Safety, Human Health and Environmental Protection"—Thurs, Oct 15, 4 pm, Clark 108, cohosted with Environmental Sciences
  • Andrew Dent, Material ConneXion, NYC "The Intersection of Material Innovation and Design: How the Products of Tomorrow are Shaped by New Materials of Today"—Fri Oct 23, 5 pm, Campbell Hall, cohosted with the Architecture School
  • Berenika Boberska, Artist and Architect, Feral Studio Architects, The Fallow City Project. Exhibit and installation associated with two month residence and research studio at UVA runs Fri Feb 26-Fri Mar 26, Ruffin Hall Gallery, UVA.
  • Marco Ellis, M.D. Northwestern University, Plastic Surgery "The Use of Alloplastic Implants in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery"—Fri Mar 26, 4 pm, Chem 304 (Dr. Ellis is a UVA alumnus)
  • Panel Discussion, "Early Childhood Plasticity: Perspectives from Economics, Psychology, Neurobiology and Policy" featuring James Heckman, The University of Chicago Economics and 2000 Nobel Laureate, Judy Cameron, University of Pittsburgh Psychiatry, Erik Turkheimer, UVA Psychology, and David Breneman, moderator from UVA Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy—Wed Mar 31, 12-1:30, Harrison Institute Auditorium.To participate, please RSVP or send an email to Alev Erisir, UVA Psychology, and host. Lunch will be provided and space is limited. Note that Profs. Heckman and Cameron will give additional specialized talks as well. See below.
  • James Heckman, Professor in Economics, The University of Chicago and 2000 Nobel Laureate. Merrick Lecture: "Building Bridges Between Structural and Program Evaluation Approaches to Policy" —Tues, March 30, 4 pm, Monroe Hall 130.
  • Judy Cameron, Professor, Departments of Psychiatry, Neuroscience, Cell Biology and Physiology, University of Pittsburgh. Keynote speaker at the Cognitive Science Program End of Year Celebration—Public talk: Thurs Apr 1, 5 pm, Gilmer 190, followed by program dinner. (Dr. Cameron's laboratory studies the effects of exposure to mild, everyday metabolic and psychosocial stresses on long-term health, with emphasis on fertility, environmental factors, and exercise, the latter of which will be the focus of her presentation at UVA. More information.)
  • Linda Birnbaum, Director, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences "Halogenated Flame Retardants: Does the Benefit Justify the Risk?"—Fri Apr 16, 4 pm, Chemistry 304, cohosted with Chemistry. (About Dr. Birnbaum and the NIEHS.)
  • "Chromogenic Materials Agents of Architecture" Exhibit featuring collaborative experiments with Scratch the Surface InkTM and different material substrates, including plastics. Curated by Rosana Rubio-Hernandez, UVA School of Architecture with design team Lin Jia, Shezeen Cassum and Yamen Hama, and contributions from Cassandra Fraser and Guoqing Zhang, Chemistry and Lisa Russ Spaar, UVA English Department and Creative Writing Program—Opening Mon Apr 26, 6 pm, Campbell Hall, second floor lobby and running through Fri Apr 30.



The following persons have been informed, consulted, or have expressed enthusiasm about this project. Their many excellent suggestions were incorporated into the project proposal.  Faculty, graduate students and advanced undergraduates in their programs can benefit, along with others across Grounds and in the community.

Arts and Sciences

  • Anthropology: Fred Damon
  • Art: Dean Dass, Elizabeth Turner (VP for the Arts)
  • Biology: Ray Keller
  • Chemistry: Cassandra Fraser (organizer)
  • Economics: Sarah Turner (also Education)
  • Envi Sci: Janet Herman, Aaron Mills, Steve Macko, Vivian Thomson (also Government)
  • Psychology: Alev Erisir, Angeline Lillard


  • Architecture: Karen VanLengen, William Sherman
  • Urban and Environmental Planning: Daphne Spain, Nisha Botchwey        


  • Mark White


  • Andrea Larson (co-organizer)


  • Biomedical: Michael Lawrence, Edward Botchwey, Thomas Skalak (VP for Research)
  • Materials Science: William Johnson
  • Chemical: Roseanne Ford
  • Electrical/Computer: Paxton Marshall
  • Science, Technology and Society: Deborah Johnson, Benjamin Cohen


  • Public Health: Ruth Gaare
  • Global Health: Rebecca Dillingham
  • Plastic Surgery: Kant Lin
  • Cell Biology: Barry Gumbiner
  • Medical Toxicology: Christopher Holstege





The Plastic Project aims to spark inquiry, build community and foster collaboration across Grounds among curious scientists, scholars, and artists with synergistic interests and shared concerns.  Participants from UVA professional schools will also play important roles. High profile speakers and innovators will be invited to stimulate new ideas and conversations. We will achieve these goals by:  a) identifying and recruiting core players—faculty, graduate students, advanced undergraduates, and members of the community; b) establishing a network of engaged participants; c) making decisions together about optimal organizational structure and speaker selection; d) designing workshop sessions. After this Spring 2009 planning phase, workshop sessions will run throughout the 2009-10 academic year.  Students will be involved with faculty in collaborative decision making, organizing, advertising, and hosting events in their fields. Rather than pay an hourly rate, their participation will make them eligible to apply for mini-grants to attend conferences, present their work on plastic/ity themes, or foster creative exploration. We envision disciplinary/thematic teams playing a key role in hosting the workshop in their departmental venues, along with a flexible presentation/discussion/refreshments format that accommodates high profile speakers and large crowds, as well as smaller more intimate gatherings to ensure cohesion, continuity, and ongoing debate among participants from session to session. It might be appropriate for advanced undergrads to request independent study or research credit for their participation. Publications, creative works, a web presence, a course for credit, and other joint ventures could surely emerge from this collaborative endeavor.



We gratefully acknowledge Page Barbour Fund support from the College of Arts and Sciences and the National Science Foundation.

We plan to network and strategize with interested persons and departments to raise money from various sources and to cost share with other programs for maximum benefit.  This will be particularly important for high profile speakers who could charge fees for appearances. We also anticipate a website that could serve as a clearinghouse for information about other programs and opportunities around Grounds and in the community with synergistic materials, green chemistry/sustainability and plasticity themes of interest to Plastic Project participants.


For more information contact plastic@virginia.edu.