WFU professor collaborates with alumni to win MacArthur Foundation Award
May 21, 2009
Two Wake Forest University alumni, Anthony Pecorella and Yuri Shtridelman, along with Jed Macosko, assistant professor of physics at Wake Forest, have won a $25,000 award from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in its 2009 Digital Media & Learning competition.
The team’s winning project, “CellCraft: Exploring the Cell through Computer Games,” will be produced with additional support from Carol Strohecker at the Center for Design Innovation and BioBotz, a nonprofit company founded by current Wake Forest students, which Macosko advises.
Pecorella, 25, met the age requirement for the MacArthur Foundation’s Young Innovators Award category. He graduated in 2004, earned a Master of Arts in mathematics degree from Wake Forest in 2006, and now resides in Durham, N.C. Macosko and Shtridelman, who graduated in 2007 and works with him as a research associate, approached Pecorella last fall about being the project leader.
“Anthony was our best chance of winning this highly sought-after award,” Macosko recalled. “His expertise and connections in the gaming industry were crucial to our success.”
Pecorella already had developed a bioscience-based strategy board game that allowed players to coordinate organelles, fight off viruses and expand their cell’s boundaries.
“The board game was my attempt to show how the insides of a living cell are similar to what happens inside a city,” Pecorella explained. “Garbage trucks, delivery vans, and power plants keep our cities running, and in the same way, cells have organelles and molecular machinery that clear away garbage, move cargo, and process energy.”
In the CellCraft video game, these same analogies will be employed to teach children how cells function.
Macosko and Shtridelman work together with Wake Forest researcher George Holzwarth, professor emeritus of physics, to unravel the inner workings of living cells. Their studies have revealed new insights into the tiny molecular “motors” that move intracellular objects along microscopic “railways.”
“These molecular motors are amazing,” Shtridelman remarked. “It’s easy to see how they could inspire an exciting video game that appeals to kids while teaching them a lot about life inside a cell.”
The MacArthur Foundation is a leader in supporting the emerging field of digital media and learning. Through its $50 million initiative launched in 2006, the foundation has funded pioneering projects in participatory learning. CellCraft is the foundation’s first funded project that explores the insides of living cells.
“The basic premise of CellCraft is based on EA’s (Electronic Arts’) Spore video game,” commented Pecorella, “In Spore, players begin with a single-cell organism and evolve their creature into an empire that spans the galaxy. But in CellCraft, players will begin with a few simple molecular machines and expand until they have a fully-functional cell. Though tiny, the complexity of machines in a cell can be as intricate as an entire empire.”
In the same way that Jacques Cousteau opened audiences’ eyes to the undersea world and the Apollo space program inspired a generation to reach for the stars, Pecorella and his team hope to unlock a new creative universe that is as near to us as our own living cells.