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Fashionable scientists and the science of sustainable fashion

by Krystal Vasquez
November 20, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 41


A lab coat for every ‘body’

When Derek Miller began his PhD in materials science, he couldn’t wait to get started with his research. But before he did, he had to go through the experimentalist’s rite of passage: picking out a lab coat.

Close-up of a white lab coat showing plenty of perfectly sized pockets to fit pens and tweezers.
Credit: Derek Miller
Lab coat woes: Frustrated with existing lab coat designs, Derek Miller is designing one that fits well and has many pockets. The first version of the design will be revealed in 2023.

His lab mates directed him to a dusty box in the corner of the lab, where he found a lone chemical-stained garment that was two sizes too big. When he put it on, it engulfed him. The whole experience “was very underwhelming,” he tells Newscripts.

Gradually, however, his underwhelm transformed into frustration. Even after snagging a smaller size, his lab coat’s huge, unruly sleeves constantly knocked over glassware. “And I am a very average-build White male,” he points out. “The system was literally built around people like me.”

He knew a better design had to be possible—one that was affordable, practical, and “comfortable enough that you can do a happy dance in,” Miller says. But he also knew he couldn’t come up with it by himself.

Instead, years later, Miller decided to crowdsource the design. Through his company, Genius Lab Gear, he surveyed scientists within his customer base and across social media, asking them to point out their lab coats’ major flaws.

Most of the feedback wasn’t surprising, with criticisms like poor fit, limited sizing, and inadequate pockets topping the list of complaints. But Miller quickly learned that there was an even deeper issue at play: an ill-fitting lab coat could harm a person’s self-esteem and their ability to picture themselves in science.

For example, one commenter said that every time they shopped for a lab coat, they felt “like science fields aren’t meant for ‘fat’ people.” Responses like that made Miller realize that “this is a serious problem that is driving people away from science.”

Today, Miller has turned his survey responses into a working prototype and will soon be assembling a team of beta testers to further scrutinize the design. Nevertheless, he says that more survey responses are needed to guarantee that all disciplines and body types are well represented. Those interested can find a link to the survey at


Lab-grown leather

While Miller is designing better garments for scientists, scientists are working to make fashion more sustainable. Recently, researchers at Columbia University and the Fashion Institute of Technology teamed up to create a compostable, microbe-grown leather, which they calculated has a significantly smaller environmental impact than both cow leather and its synthetic alternatives (Environ. Sci.: Adv. 2022, DOI: 10.1039/D2VA00050D).

Black-and-white sneakers made out of a leather-like material.
Credit: Jon Brown
Sustainable shoes: Theanne Schiros, in collaboration with Public School NY, created sneakers from a new microbe-grown bioleather.

The material is produced from a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, known as Scoby, similar to the ones used by kombucha breweries. As these microbes metabolize sugars in the tea, they naturally produce tiny strands of cellulose that dry into a strong, hide-like material, says one of the project’s lead scientists, Theanne Schiros.

But at this stage, the nanocellulose fibers “don’t have that kind of durability required of our clothes,” Schiros tells Newscripts, so additional processing steps are needed. In contrast to conventional leather production, which uses hazardous substances like chromium, Schiros and her colleagues used an emulsion of lecithin, a method inspired by an Indigenous tanning practice in which brains are used to process the animal hides.

Once tanned, the microbe-based textile can be used to make shoes and other fashion accessories. For example, in collaboration with designers from Public School NY, Schiros created a pair of sneakers, which will be showcased in an exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in February 2023. “The only part that’s not nanocellulose is the biodegradable cork bottom,” she explains.

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