Design Professor Helen Koo First Winner of Innovation and Creative Vision Award


Helen Koo
Helen Koo

Helen Koo, an assistant professor in the University of California, Davis, Department of Design, is the inaugural recipient of the UC Davis Award for Innovation and Creative Vision for her work in wearable technology. The award was established to honor and support the advances of outstanding non-tenured faculty members early in their careers.

The $40,000 award, made possible by the generous support of a UC Davis alumnus and his wife, will support Koo’s research on self-transformable smart clothing for people with movement disorders. The clothing draws on contemporary technology as well as the ancient art of origami.

“People with body mobility disorders such as cerebral palsy have trouble getting dressed,” said Koo, who came to UC Davis in 2014. “Clothing that is easy for them to put on and take off will increase their independence, dignity and quality of life.”

Primary work that will be accomplished with the grant will be developing a jacket using shape memory alloy, miniature e-circuits and smart textile fabrication techniques. It will be designed to wrap around and fit the user without outside assistance. The initial research could lead to applications ranging from auto-fitted car seats, wearable robots and protective clothing for firefighters and astronauts.

Potential for collaborations

“This research has great potential for collaborations with disability studies, healthcare informatics and biomedical engineering, and could help UC Davis become a hub for wearable technology research,” she said.

The project will start by interviewing people who could benefit from such products and continue with developing and fabricating prototypes. Funding will provide for the purchase of materials, analysis of data, travel and hiring student assistants.

textiles trans

 “A project like this is very demanding in both time and materials — from interviewing survey participants to the cost of materials — so I am very grateful for the award which is helpful and necessary,” Koo said. “It will help us build a solid foundation for work that could develop in many ways.”

 Nominations for the award came from eight of UC Davis’ schools and colleges 

“Our committee reviewed them in depth, and agreed that Helen Koo’s research on self-transformable smart clothing was outstandingly creative, well-supported by her pilot work, and likely to lead to many novel applications,” said award committee chair Brian Mulloney, distinguished research professor in the UC Davis College of Biological Sciences. “She has brought together elements of design, industrial engineering, and human biomechanics in unexpected ways to solve a significant problem, and is our unanimous choice for this first UC Davis Award for Innovation and Creative Vision.”

Koo earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in clothing and textiles from Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea, and her doctorate in design-apparel studies from the University of Minnesota. She and students in the UC Davis Fashion Design and Technology Lab (FT Lab) recently won a top award at the Golden A’ Design Competition in Italy and International Design Awards. Koo has presented her work at the International Symposium of Wearable Computers in Japan and the Madrid City Council and Medialab-Prado in Spain. Her UC Davis awards include an Academic Senate Faculty Research Grant and a Hellman Fellowship.

Watch a video of one of the transformable garments created at the FT Lab. The lab’s work can also be seen through Oct. 2 at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles. 

— Jeffrey Day, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science