A Collaboration Across Disciplines

Engaging Across Scales


A collaboration between Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, GenSpace, the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, and Landscape Metrics, the BK BioReactor is an investigation into the unseen microbiology of the Gowanus Canal, Brooklyn’s hippest Superfund. Utilizing the tools of biotechnology and design, the group’s mission is one of microbial discovery and a continued study for a designed future. Comprised of numerous contributing individuals and volunteers, the team’s core members include Ian Quate, Matthew Seibert, Elizabeth Hénaff, and Ellen Jorgensen.

The project was catalyzed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) designation of the Gowanus Canal as a Superfund and its plan to dredge and sub-aquatically cap the waterway over the next ten years. This destructive remediation of the canal environment raised the question: what is the environment that is about to be supplanted?

This process follows 150 years of industrial pollution, combined sewage overflows, and stormwater runoff contaminating the length of the canal, garnering an infamous reputation among the most polluted waterways in the Nation. Yet polluted environments, long overlooked as inimical to life, are receiving attention from Microbiologists. Armed with new analytical tools from molecular engineering, scientists are unearthing new communities of microorganisms unique to the urban realm. The team is cognizant that dredging operations will eliminate these microbial communities in the Gowanus Canal before their taxonomy and potentially unique cell products are studied and catalogued.


The project originated under the name of Enquête Gowanus, a multi-disciplinary partnership between Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, GenSpace, and the Gowanus Canal Conservancy to decipher the microbial diversity of the Gowanus Canal, a notorious Superfund site, and imagine responsive constructs that could accompany a future monitoring regime.

Equipped with DIY sampling instruments and a deep curiosity in the invisible microbiology of this toxic environment, the team and a crew of volunteers sampled sediment at 14 targeted sites along the two mile stretch of the canal. Site attributes such as turbidity, light exposure, depth, salinity, and location were assessed to select sites that exhibited a spectrum of environmental influences. These samples were subsequently taken to GenSpace, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting citizen science and access to biotechnology, to extract the DNA of the collection of organisms--or microbiome--in the sediment and store it as a genetic library.

With interest in the project growing and a need for greater technology, the team quickly expanded to include the Institute for Computational Biomedicine at Weill Cornell Medical College. Chris Mason’s lab generously offered the facilities and staff to sequence the extracted DNA and computationally identify the microbes and their functions with this data. Since the initial sampling, originally envisioned as a one-time expedition into the genetic material of the Gowanus Canal, the project has developed into a seasonal investigation of these extreme and resilient life forms. Having completed 4 samplings over the course of 1 year to date (Sep 2015) the team is collecting a dataset of that can illustrate microbiological change over time. Recently, Landscape Metrics was brought on to contribute interactive cartographic visualization, motion graphics, and web development services to the BK BioReactor project.


Video produced by Brett Van Deusen as an in-kind donation to Genspace. Editing by Anne-Cecile Genre. Sound by Jon Bozeman. Production by Zach Weingart.


Ian Quate has a vested interest in gathering and manipulating information in the environment, from genetics to construction documents to geology. He has studied with academic institutions in North Carolina, New York City, Rhode Island, Ecuador, and England, and has published in Manifest: A Journal of American Architecture and Lunch: UVA’s Design Research Journal. Ian is a designer at Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects and co-directs GRNASFCK.

Matthew Seibert holds a Bachelors in Humanities from the University of Texas at Austin and a Masters in Landscape Architecture from Louisiana State University. His background in philosophy, visual arts, and landscape design enables a unique unfolding, analysis, and recomposition of landscape’s complex narratives. Supporting this is a strong belief and practice in engaging diverse disciplines in meaningful collaboration. Past projects illustrating this framework have earned numerous awards and been published in several journals. Matthew has worked as a designer at Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects and is currently the Creative Director of Landscape Metrics, a science-leaning visualization studio that transforms information into interactive web applications, video animations, and cartographic stories.

Dr. Elizabeth Hénaff is interested in the ways that living beings interact with their environment. She has made contributions to understanding how plants respond to the force of gravity, how genome structure changes in response to stress, and most recently has turned her attention to the ubiquitous microbial component of our environment. .She was born of French/American parents,, grew up in France, and has since lived in the US, Japan and Spain. She received a BS in Computer Science, an MS in Plant Biology (both from UT Austin) and a PhD in Bioinformatics from the University of Barcelona. She has made contributions to understanding how plants respond to the force of gravity, how genome structure changes in response to stress, and most recently has turned her attention to cancer biology. Her interests in biological interactions and beautiful Big Data visualizations have inspired her to create interactive installations, collaborating with artists and musicians. She currently lives in Brooklyn and works as a postdoc at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. More info at

Dr. Ellen Jorgensen is co-founder and Executive Director of Genspace. She is passionate about increasing science literacy in both student and adult populations, particularly in the areas of molecular and synthetic biology.

In 2011 she initiated Genspace’s award-winning curriculum of informal science education for adults in biotechnology and synthetic biology. Ellen has mentored two college teams in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition and spearheaded many of Genspace’s outreach programs such as the Urban Barcode Project, a collaboration between Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Genspace where high school students pursue projects using DNA barcoding.

Her efforts to develop Genspace into a haven for entrepreneurship, innovation and citizen science have been chronicled by Nature Medicine, Science, Discover Magazine, BBC News, Dan Rather Reports, PBS News Hour, The Discovery Channel,and The New York Times. Ellen has a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from New York University, spent many years in the biotechnology industry, and is currently adjunct faculty at New York Medical College, the School of Visual Arts, and a Visiting Professor at The Cooper Union.

Ellen’s talk ‘Biohacking- you can do it, too’ at TEDGlobal 2012 has received over half a million views. Her latest project is to DNA barcode the plants of the Alaskan tundra.

Dr. Christopher Mason is an Associate Professor of Computational Genomics at Weill Cornell Medicine, with appointments in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics, the Institute for Computational Biomedicine, the Tri-Institutional Program on Computational Biology and Medicine, the Meyer Cancer Center, and the Feil Family Brain and Mind Research Institute.

Dr. Mason completed his dual B.S. in Genetics and Biochemistry from University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2001, his Ph.D. in Genetics from Yale University in 2006, and his post-doctoral training in Clinical Genetics at Yale Medical School in 2009, while also serving as the first Visiting Fellow of Genomics, Ethics, and Law at Yale Law School.

He has won NIH’s Transformative R01 Award, the Hirschl-Weill-Caulier Career Scientist Award, the Vallee Foundation Young Investigator Award, the CDC Honor Award for Standardization of Clinical Testing, the WorldQuant Foundation Research Scholar Award, and he is also a TEDMED speaker. He has >100 peer-reviewed papers that have been cited thousands of times and also by the U.S. District and Supreme Courts. His laboratory creates and utilizes novel genomics technologies and algorithms for integrating “multi-omic” and new layers of biology, including the epitranscriptome, synthetic genomes, and the metagenome.

Benjamin Wellington contributes to the BK BioReactor project as a web developer and data visualization specialist. Benjamin holds a Bachelor of Arts in Geographical Studies from the University of Chicago and a Master of Landscape Architecture from Louisiana State University and is principal and visualization lead of Landscape Metrics.