Bill’s Research Update

Hi there! Bill here. As promised in my last blog post, I’m giving you an update on my dissertation research this time. Read about what I have been doing in the past two years and what I’m expecting to do for the rest of my PhD study here as a corporate Biomimicry Fellow in the Integrated Bioscience Program at The University of Akron.

I have a research background in studying the structure – function relationship in proteins (mostly enzymes). Therefore, spider silk protein has been an interesting topic to me for a long time. Because of that, I was very excited to finally have the opportunity to do research on spider silks and webs with Dr. Blackledge when I came to UAkron two years ago. Spider silk is a hot topic in biomimetic research. Dragline silk is strong, elastic, lightweight, and tougher than Kevlar.

As a corporate Biomimicry Fellow, I’m also working for my sponsor company – Sherwin-Williams – a fortune 500 company primarily focused on paints, coatings and related products. They are interested in structural color research, and hence I’m co-advised by Dr. Shawkey.

At first I thought combining my interest in spider silk with my sponsor’s interest in structural color would be easy. The core in both research fields involves self-assembly processes: Scientists believe the magic that makes spider silk the toughest known material happens when the liquid silk proteins self-assembled and are transformed into solid silk threads. One of the biggest unsolved mysteries in structural color research also relates to how nanostructures are developed/regulated in biological systems, presumably through self-assembly processes. Therefore, if we can decipher the secrets in those self-assembly processes, it is very likely that we can emulate them and invent novel nanofabrication techniques to manufacture materials with desired mechanical or optical properties.

However, the scope of “self-assembly” is too broad as a topic for a dissertation and neither my advisors, nor my lab mates have much expertise in self-assembly. This urged me to figure out a different way to combine spiders and structural colors. I was previously reluctant to commit to make structural color the focus of my dissertation because: 1) Lots of research has already been done on this topic. 2) Structural color research is heavy on physics and optics, and I’m a biologist.

But after I learned about it more and more, I realized that there are still many opportunities in structural color research and many interesting questions remain to be answered (See attached paper below). Since the nature of biomimicry is interdisciplinary and I’m in the Integrated Bioscience PhD Program, I convinced myself to step out of my comfort zone. I’m really excited for the focus of my dissertation research landed on “structural colors in spiders”.

During the past two years, I attended two Arachnid conferences (ICA2013, AAS2014) to learn more about spiders, and I also attended one Optics conference (SPIE Optics+Photonics 2014) to get familiar with the application ends of the research. (SPIE is also the second largest biomimetic conference in terms of publication, according to this article.) My conference paper, published in Proceedings of SPIE, has been mentioned in several scientific news blogs. Last month, I defended my dissertation proposal to my advisory committee. My research plans were appealing to them and now I have to crank out a lot of data, and get those results published. Even though I still have a lot to learn (e.g., statistics, programming/simulations, nanofabrication, … etc.), I fortunately found several great collaborators who want to help me. So I’m optimistic and confident that I will accomplish my research goals! In the mean time, we are also starting short-term Biomimicry projects at Sherwin-Williams on topics independent of my dissertation research, based on the successful experience that Emily pioneered in her sponsor company.

Note to self: Those are interesting conferences that I would like to attend in the future.
1. Living Light Conference 2016
2. International Symposium on Biomimetic Materials Processing (BMMP)
3. Bioinspiration, Biomimetics, and Bioreplication

If you are interested and would like to know more about my research, you can find the conference paper here:

Bor-Kai Hsiung ; Todd A. Blackledge and Matthew D. Shawkey
” Structural color and its interaction with other color-producing elements: perspectives from spiders “, Proc. SPIE 9187, The Nature of Light: Light in Nature V, 91870B (September 8, 2014);

© (2014) COPYRIGHT Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers (SPIE). Downloading of the abstract is permitted for personal use only.


Or download it HERE.


  1. badgehs

    Wow. Reading this, my reaction was that circumstances had sent you groping, that it didn’t sound a promising start to a career. By the time I got to the end of the abstract, I was hooked. It’s just the type of curious investigation that might change the course of a field.

    Amazing and exciting how this human exploration process works, huh?

    Congrats, good luck, and I hope to see you before long in Akron.

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