In developing wearable technology, fashion student blends science and style

Alice Babashak ran track for 12 years until she broke her back while a heptathlete at Indiana University. But in the semester she took off to recover, she applied to the VCUarts Fashion Design + Merchandising program, where she discovered a fascinating new way to navigate the sports world: wearable technology.

Initially a kinesiology major at Indiana, Babashak was drawn to fashion when her coach suggested she combine her lifelong passions for art and athletics into creating sportswear for companies like Adidas. The idea electrified her imagination, and at VCUarts, she’s been able to put new ideas to the test.

“I wanted to be a doctor at one point,” says Babashak. “But I grew up with art. My grandmother was an artist. So [wearable tech] lets me do the art path and the science path.”

Babashak was first introduced to the breadth of technological possibilities in a wearable tech class taught by Kate Sicchio, assistant professor of dance and Kinetic Imaging. Each week, Sicchio introduced the class to new methods of blending movement and electronics, from haptic feedback to responsive LEDs and live coding. They also got to design their own prototypes.

“I made this [shoe sole] insert with a type of flex sensor,” says Babashak. “So when I walked on it, it would text my phone if I was pronating—like, ‘Ow!’—or if I was walking okay—‘Much better.’”

Babashak’s pursuits have since led her to engineer an app-connected pressure sensor for running shoes that can sense imbalances in a runner’s gait; design footwear to assist people with Parkinson’s; and work with a team to develop a clothing line with motion-activated air bags to cushion falls. Research for the latter project, which was presented to an engineer from Old Dominion University, has been cited in a grant application to the National Institutes of Health.

As a senior, she supplemented her fashion major with a certificate in product innovation from VCU’s da Vinci Center. It’s allowed her to further study engineering and experiment more with coding and testing her prototypes. She also had internships with textile designers and the VCU School of Nursing, which have demonstrated to her the broader applications of fashion as both aesthetic statements and medical assistance.

“Once I get interested in something, I can’t put it down until it works,” says Babashak.

As a heptathlete and competitive gymnast, Babashak has seen her share of injuries; she’s broken an arm and even suffered a concussion. It’s never deterred her from returning to sports, but it has prompted her to consider what she would do if one day she can’t compete.

“[Athletic wear] would allow me to be in the sport after my body fails,” says Babashak, “and be a part of this design and creative area where you get to explore different mediums and shapes, and how that can improve running. It’s a happy medium of medicine and art.”

Lead image: Alice Babashack at the da Vinci Center, holding a leg prop that she 3D printed.