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Biology Major Folds Origami into Her College Experience

Argiro dna
Argiro dna
Elizabeth Argiro with the DNA model used to illustrate the connection between art and STEM during an outreach event for Stony Brook Medicine’s Health Occupations Partnership for Excellence (HOPE) program.

Elizabeth Argiro first got turned on to origami at the age of eight, when her aunt gave her a box of origami paper and an instruction book as a Christmas present.

“The paper was so beautiful,” she said. “I tried to make every model in that book. The very last model in the book took me weeks to figure out. You had to kind of rotate the model in your mind to figure out how to do that last step of folding the wings up. It became a puzzle. But when it finally clicked, I was hooked.”

Though she didn’t realize it at the time, origami was something she would carry forward into her college career.

Her interest first grew in high school when her model of a rose was a finalist in the international Origami by Children competition held by Origami USA, the national origami organization for the United States.

“That encouraged me even more because I got recognition for something that I loved doing,” she said. Argiro would be named a finalist in the competition the next two years as well.

Argiro, a junior biology major, was passionate enough about her hobby to volunteer to teach origami classes at her local library and start an origami club in high school, something she would repeat when she came to Stony Brook in 2020, right in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Argiro origami rose
Elizabeth Argiro’s origami rose was named a finalist in the international Origami by Children competition in 2016.

“Everything was still online when I started college,” she said. “At the time the origami club was more than a club activity, it was like leading a class. But I worked hard to make it work because it was one of the only sources of community we had. It was important.”

Two years later, the Origami Club has close to 200 members, many of whom are in STEM fields.

“Origami is one of the most accessible art forms for people in STEM,” said Argiro. “We’ve got math majors, physics, biology, chemistry, biomedical engineering, sustainability studies…it’s all STEM. If you look at the top origami artists in the US right now, they’re engineers. They’re people at MIT, they have PhDs in math and engineering, they’re NASA engineers…they’re scientists who apply their skills to the art form.”

Though origami is not directly related to her biology studies, Argiro is attracted to the science side of the art.

“I specialize in computational biology,” she said. “That involves applying computational methods and mathematical thinking to biological problems. But origami is also intrinsically mathematical. It’s shapes. There’s a problem at the base of it — how do you transform a 2D square into a 3D geometrical object? And these objects get super intricate.”

Argiro said that not only is origami mathematical, but it has a lot of applications in engineering.

“For example, the problem of taking a huge surface area and compressing it into a small one and retaining the properties of that material so that you can expand it back to its original size when you need it to,” she said, pointing to real world examples like the mirrors and occulters of space telescopes, or heart stents. “A heart stent needs to be thin enough so that it can get through your cardiovascular system and reach your heart, and then it needs to expand once it gets to the plaque so that it can unblock it,” she said.

To help spread the word, Argiro does volunteer work with Mei Lin [Ete] Chan, an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, to educate young people about these applications and get them interested in science. Argiro has been part of the Science and Technology Entry Program (STEP), a program administered by the New York State Education Department to encourage underrepresented minority and low-income secondary school students and prepare them for entry into scientific, technical, health and health-related professions.

Origami display
The origami club’s display showcase in Frey Hall.

“I’ve had an amazing experience collaborating with Elizabeth and her dream team in the origami club for numerous successful STEAM (STEM + Arts)-promoting community outreach events,” said Chan. “Her decisiveness, openness to new ideas and genuine motivation to make people happy with an easily accessible art form have driven her club to be one of the most popular student groups for collaboration on campus. Integrating art with STEM in our outreach programs helps people discover many fascinating origami-inspired biomedical engineering and other STEM applications.”

In addition to her work with the origami club, Argiro pursues another long-time interest of hers through research: viruses.

“I’m currently working with Tom MacCarthy, an assistant professor in the Applied Mathematics & Statistics Department, on a computational biology project,” she said. “We’re trying to use the genetic information of mammalian viruses, their genomes, to see if we can find predictors of zoonosis, which is when an animal virus jumps to a human virus. That’s something that can cause a pandemic, so it’s a very pertinent question now.”

And while origami is not part of her current career plans, Argiro hopes to continue to be involved with it as she grows older.

“It’s a great creative release,” she said. “If I go to graduate school or another path, it’s very possible that origami could be part of that.”

Visit the origami club’s display case located in Frey Hall.

— Robert Emproto

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