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Making Space

The Institute of Making is a multidisciplinary research club for those interested in the made world: from makers of molecules to makers of buildings, synthetic skin to spacecraft, soup to diamonds, socks to cities. Membership of and day-to-day access to the Institute is available to all UCL staff and students. As the Institute has recently celebrated its fourth birthday, we asked its Co-founder and Director Zoe Laughlin a few questions.

The IoM is an amazing resource for UCL. How did it come about?

It’s a long story. For me, in many ways, it is a life’s work. The culmination of a life long interest in materials and making things, a process of playfully following your interests and asking ‘what if’. More practically, it came about as the result of a long standing collaboration between myself and the other directors. We met over ten years ago now and share a deep passion for materials and processes of making and believe that these things are beyond disciplinary boundaries. Above all however, we are enthusiasts and enjoy spending time together. We want to build a space that celebrated materials and spoke of their potential, and enable us to provide a home for others who shared our enthusiasms and wanted to get up to things with materials. I often describe the workshop within the Institute of Making as my dream garden shed and the Materials Library as a way of looking at the world, and I hope that this is now something others feel too - that there is a new type of place within the university that can enable new types of work to be done.

What been your favourite IoM moment so far?

Amazingly, it is not an exaggeration to say that there are magic moments every day and that it is impossible to pick a favourite. Be it a touching encounter with a young person who attends one of our events or a new member who’s eyes light up when they realise what they now have access to, I suppose the common theme of favourite moments is when one realises something of the impact our ethos, the space and the activities we stage within it, have upon people. We now have over 8000 members - people form across all walks of UCL who have signed up to be part of the Institute of Making and you never know what project you’ll come across someone undertaking and how this will influence their work and life. Two of our members who met each other in the Institute of Making have now married! Members’ projects can be and have been anything from the conversion of a skip into a sleeping pod, to a multimillion pound research projects into artificial heart valves or the making of a Christmas presents and we value all of them.

If you could have one wish for the IoM to achieve in the next four years what would it be?

The chance to scale up.

The IoM has an amazing library of materials. What is your favourite material in the collection and why?

I always enjoy sharing some of the wonders of the Materials Library with people. I have always had a sort spot for tin. It’s not headline wonderstuff, but it does something extraordinary and for me, it has hte power to change how you see and think about the world. If you take a stick or tine and bend it, it will make a crunchy squeaky sound. This sound, known at ‘the cry’ of tin is a result of the specific internal crystalline structure of the metal. When you bend it, the crystals catching scratch and scrape over each other, causing vibration that not only hear, but feel in your hands as you bend it. It is an amazing moment when you are suddenly experiencing the microstructure of the material. 

One of your areas of interest is the Taste of Materials. What is the best material/taste combination you’ve come across so far?

You’ve not lived until you have eaten mango sorbet off a gold spoon.

Many of our readers will have seen you on BBC’s The Big Life Fix. What has been your favourite problem to solve so far?

The Big Life Fix is a great show to be part of. At times it has been incredible moving and nearly all of the solutions we came up with produced real-world outcomes that have made a huge different to the lives to those involved. It was impossible not to be captivated by little Rosie, who at age 7, was a dynamic and committed David Bowie fan. Helping her was a joy. It is also great to see the work that was done on the show to help individuals who suffered cystic fibrosis, now forming part of a formal research projects here at UCL.

Who is your most inspiring woman and why?

If you have to start thinking and talking about being a woman, it would be Germain Greer - to me she expresses the idea of finding what you want to do, doing it your way and bloody well going for it. Ellen McArthur is up there too, for the same reason.

The Institute of Making is open to all UCL students and staff, and holds regular public events. You can find out more details on the Institute of Making Website.