All-woman team constructs clever commentary in CITRIS Invention Lab

by Saemmool Lee

A mysterious white box welcomes users with a sign that reads, “Feeling inadequate? Come on over.” If you put your hand into it, a glowing LED (Light-Emitting Diode) light flashes around your hand. The box scans your biometric data to determine your body needs, and creates a custom pill that optimizes your wellness. Then the box will spit the pill out into a petri dish. You may feel better by taking it, but it’s actually a placebo filled with sugar. Your hand was not electronically scanned.

The box, now on exhibit behind glass at the CITRIS Tech Museum, is a part of the “Nostrum Project,” designed to critique America’s enthusiasm for supplements with overpromising ads, and an “optimization culture” that attempts to maximize human productivity. The project started in the Critical Practices course (ART NWMEDIA 290) taught by Art Practice professor Jill Miller in the CITRIS Invention Lab. The interdisciplinary team consists of undergraduates Annalise Kamegawa (Cognitive Science), Franchesca Spektor (Bio Ethics and Design), Hailey Windsor (Environmental Design), and Heidi Dong (Computer Science); and Ph.D. student Justine Chia (Molecular and Cell Biology).

“Nostrum,” from the Latin “Noster,” for “Ours,” is a term that refers to a medicine that is not considered effective nor scientifically proven, prepared by an unqualified person. “It actually describes what we are doing in providing medicine that doesn’t work, that none of us are qualified to make,” says Windsor. “In actuality, these pills are totally placebos. Even if you know it’s a placebo, the pills still may work, which we joked about a little bit when we said, ‘I took one just to make sure that I wouldn’t get sick.’”

The team came up with the idea through a group assignment. The five students brainstormed around projects that reflected “absurdity” but tackled social issues. The team first created fake prescriptions: users are assessed from personal questions like “Do you exercise?” or “Do you fear death?” from Nostrum’s website. They are then guided to the white box “Wellness Pod,” to supposedly provide wellness information by seeming to scan their hands. Then they receive the pills.

Deliberately cynical signage beside the Wellness Pod declares the “Nostrum pill improves your life mentally, physically, emotionally, psychologically, and sexually.” The team says that many of the fantastical claims are not far from what can be seen from online commercials. “Lots of language is lifted exactly from companies’ websites that actually do exist right now,” says Chia. The team offers real-world examples of claims in the display, such as “By joining our journey, you’re part of a movement to enable the disease-free, optimized human being,” and “It’s a healing force, an etheric potion, a cosmic beacon for those seeking out beauty, wellness, and longevity.”

The team highlights the “branding” of the supplement industry. “It wasn’t just saying ‘this will make you healthier or this will make your bones stronger,’” says Spektor. “The promised effects really spoke to the culture and value system of people taking these products. It was about maximum productivity, being your best, most optimized self.”

Supplements are widely used and trusted in the U.S. Among adults in the U.S., 75 percent take dietary supplements and 87 percent have overall confidence in the safety, quality, and effectiveness of dietary supplements, according to the 2018 CRN Consumer Survey on Dietary Supplements. However, the Nostrum team notes that dietary supplements are not regulated in the U.S., which means that anyone can sell supplements even without any health benefits. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states that the agency is not authorized to review dietary supplement products for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed because they fall under the category of foods.

FDA recommends consumers visit noncommercial sites (e.g., FDA, NIH, USDA) when searching for supplements rather than depending on information from sellers. At the Tech Museum display, the team suggests that consumers:

  • “Talk your doctor before investing time and money into potentially bogus science”
  • “Take time to question the advertising around you (do you actually need XYZ to be happy and healthy, or were you just told that you need it?)”
  • “Reflect on your values, and consider whether or not you even need to be optimized”

The Nostrum team say that the interdisciplinary experience on the team been great, since they could draw out expertise from varied fields for specialized tasks, such as building mechanisms inside the box, launching a website, designing graphics and producing a video. “I feel like this team really works like small companies do,” says Kamegawa. “When you work in a company, you don’t have just 17 graphic designers or 17 engineers. You have different divisions and people who all specialize in different things. So, that was cool.”

Working at the CITRIS Invention Lab, the team received help from the lab’s Chris Myers, senior lab manager, and superuser Adam Hutz (Ph.D. Rhetoric student). For some students, it was their first exposure to the lab space. “My previous background is mostly with web design, graphic design, programming and digital projects,” says Dong. “Working on this project really introduced me to the makerspace culture at Berkeley.”

Building skills at the CITRIS Invention Lab means a lot to undergraduates. “If you get all this experience as an undergraduate, you go into a research program afterwards and you have this whole library of tools and skills to help, push the research forward, and be a huge benefit to the research project as opposed to entry level,” says Myers.

Four of the five Nostrum team members (Chia, Kamegawa, Spektor, and Windsor) have become superusers of the lab this semester. The CITRIS Invention Lab now has the largest number of superusers in its 6-year history with 19 students, and more than half are women.

“For the longest time, I never thought of myself as a technical person,” says Spektor. “The more I started spending time down there, the more I started learning, and the more I could ask questions. It’s just a great feeling to be with a team and in a community of people surrounded by interesting projects and folks who are so smart and working on amazing things and pushing through problems all the time.”

The CITRIS Tech Museum is open to the public on weekdays year-round from 9:00 am – 4:30 pm for free, self-guided tours. The museum is closed on campus holidays and for occasional special events. Please call ahead at (510) 664-4301 to confirm availability if you are planning a museum visit.

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Featured Image: Heidi Dong, Franchesca Spektor, Annalise Kamegawa, Hailey Windsor, and Justine Chia (from left to right)
Images: Adriel Olmos and Nostrum