Success Stories in STEAM: Hyejun Youn ’14

AuxeticBreath, by Hyejun Youn ’14, was exhibited this past February at the 15th annual Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) International Conference on Tangible, Embedded, and Embodied Interaction (TEI), a convention addressing issues of human-computer interaction, novel 
tools and technologies, interactive art, and user experience. The youngest participant in the conference’s art and performance track this year, Hyejun designed her installation to use interactive technology with light and movement, soft robotics, and auxetic structures to convey an awareness of breath in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I was inspired by the changing perception of breath, specifically how it had a positive connotation before the pandemic—for example, life and energy—and a more negative significance for people since,” Hyejun said. “I increase the respiratory rate of the installation when a viewer approaches and change the color by using LED lights to convey the sense of unease we now have with personal closeness. My goal was to prompt viewers to confront pandemic-induced tensions in a safe space, and meditate on how their perceptions of interacting with people have changed.”Hyejun received her MFA in digital media from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) after completing a psychology major with a double minor in studio art and digital art and design at New York University. Before that, she had moved from her native Korea to attend Friends Select in sixth grade. She recalls the warm welcome she received from her middle and upper school science teacher, Christa Quint P’09, and how it prompted her interest in science. “Christa was so helpful toward international students. She could understand some of the challenges we faced because she came from Germany, and she shared her experience of arriving in the United States with us,” recalled Hyejun. “I loved her class, too; perhaps it was my positive memories of Christa and her science classes that brought me to a scientific field.”
    
Hyejun has always complemented her interest in science with her natural artistic ability, a talent that flourished in upper school under the mentorship of teachers Lynda Greenwade P’03, ’12 and Deborah Caiola. As upper school art club president, she oversaw the creation of the multicanvas mural that still lines the walls of the Matthew Huffman ’91 Dining Hall. She recalls Deborah’s advice to draw sketches, do research, and consolidate ideas and concepts before drawing on her canvas. “Their comments inspired me to study psychology, to experiment, and to really dig into research as a way to improve my art,” Hyejun said. “This process inspired many of my projects, and really distinguished me from other designers.” 
    
Hyejun combined her love of art and science in a painted portrait of one of her favorite teachers, Ralph Reinwald, which was exhibited off campus. “I was very proud of myself and was happy that the portrait of someone I treasure was on display. It was a special feeling that was novel for me at the time,” she recalled. Hyejun added that Lynda, Deborah, and Ralph inspired her to explore the intersection of art and science in her university studies. “They inspired me to pursue more than just one single field and encouraged me to explore different paths.”
    
In addition to creating artwork, Hyejun recently developed a pneumatic platform with Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab researchers. The device, which helps manipulate soft robotics with pressurized air, was the recipient of the Gold Medal award in ACM CHI 2021 and the Silver A’ Design Award in the Scientific Instruments and Research Equipment Design Category. She has also developed apps, such as SeeFit, Remy: Mental Health Companion, and others designed to use emerging technology to help those with mental health issues and disabilities. 
    
A self-described researcher, Hyejun is continuing her graduate studies at Harvard University this fall and looks forward to further exploring the interrelatedness of art and science. “I would encourage students not to restrict their focus to just one or two subjects,” she said, when asked what advice she would give current Friends Select students. “You don’t have to simply accept the current boundaries of your field. Subjects and disciplines are constantly overlapping and running together, and it’s hard to predict what new fields and resulting opportunities will be available in the future. Instead of following a ‘set’ path, challenge yourself to find your own unique path and develop your own creative work.”