A team of students, under the leadership of Andrea Polli, a professor at The  University of New Mexico's College of Fine Arts and associate professor of Computer Science at the UNM School of Engineering, has been working on a project called BioShield, a product synthesized from a woman's own tears that masks the biochemical signals of her ovulatory cycle for the purposes of privacy, protection, and control. 

Polli’s team has been invited to present their project at the Biodesign Challenge (BDC) Summit at the Parsons School of Design and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in June. The BDC partners students with scientists, artists, and designers to envision new ways of harnessing living systems and biotechnology.

Members of the team are second-year grad student Amy Traylor, who studies experimental art technology; Patricia Melton, a grad student in studio arts; Rowan Willow, a senior in the Honors Interdisciplinary Liberal Arts College, and Alivia Magaña, a grad student and morphology technician for the UNM Office of the Medical Investigator. Polli’s classes pull together science, data, technology, and the arts to make a variety of eye-catching but educational projects.

“It’s dehumanizing behavior. The microaggressions slowly eat away at a woman’s quality of life.”  - Amy Traylor 

Most women at some point in their lives have dealt with unwanted sexual aggression, including catcalls on the street, disrespect, objectification, unwanted attention and microaggressions at work, online trolling, or violent sexual assault. Despite years of protests, awareness campaigns, sexual harassment training in the workplace, and the #MeToo movement, the age-old problem still plagues women of all ages, all over the world.

“It’s dehumanizing behavior. The microaggressions slowly eat away at a woman’s quality of life” Traylor said. 

There is research to show that men exhibited changes in their testosterone levels, pulse, and blood pressure when in the presence of a woman who was ovulating – the usually monthly process in which an egg moves from a woman’s ovaries to the womb. Some research shows men are more likely to harass a woman at this time. 

Despite the evidence that women are often the objects of a range of unwanted attention, women are often not believed by family members, people in positions of power in their workplace, and law enforcement, Melton noted. They are patronized or seen as emotionally exaggerating.

What if, the team asked, a woman could mask her ovulatory system, providing her more privacy, protection, and control over her body. They found research that showed the scent of a woman’s tears – emotional, sad tears – sent out signals that could reduce that arousal in men. Their project looked at how they could harness the biochemical power of tears to camouflage the signs of ovulation and reduce unwanted sexual attention. Their BioShield project came together to explore the possibilities.

They envisioned three products that would help women in different situations: 

  • A 3-D printed ring that would hold enough tears to affect someone close by, such as an intimate partner.
  • A concentrated spray for all-day protection
  • A room diffuser that would spread protection to a larger space, such as an office. 

The products, at least for the time being, are “design fiction,” a design practice that explores possible products by creating speculative, and often provocative, scenarios narrated through designed artifacts, and not actually commercially available. 

There is much more discussion and research to do to see if the products would work on a practical, commercial scale, and, Magaña added, whether there is a more efficient way to affect male behavior. There are also ethical concerns, 

“But the science is there,” Willow said.

More details about the project are available on the website at bioshield.me. The website is only a prototype and the contents are speculative. The products are not actually available.

The UNM group will be judged at the BDC by a panel of over 50 leading entrepreneurs, curators, artists, designers, scientists, and an audience of 400 and compete for prizes. They will compete against 35 other teams from nine countries.