New Faculty Spotlight: Helen Koo and Stefan Uhlig

In this “Spotlight on New Faculty,” the UC Davis Humanities Institute interviewed two new faculty members in the Division of Humanities, Arts, and Cultural Studies. UC Davis welcomes Helen Koo, assistant professor in the Department of Design, and Stefan Uhlig, assistant professor in the Department of Comparative Literature.

Helen Koo, Assistant Professor, Department of Design

Helen Koo is an interdisciplinary scholar and designer with expertise in fashion design, wearable technology, smart clothing, and sustainable garments.

Working at the intersection of fashion design and fabric-based product development, she has done many transdisciplinary works by collaborating with various disciplines such as engineering, fiber sciences, kinesiology, medicine, and psychology. Koo has designed and developed wearable technology products focused on improving people’s lives, like garments for people with disabilities, underrepresented groups, and workers in extreme environments.

Research interests

Koo is researching interchangeable and detachable E-textile kits for wearable technology designers and developers by collaborating with the Department of Biomedical Engineering.  For diagnosing diabetes, Koo developed a nanostructured, fabric-based gas sensor that can be attached anywhere near the face to detect levels of acetone in the user’s exhale by collaborating with Material Engineering at Auburn University. The sensor tracks acetone levels and can monitor symptoms. As this technology develops, Koo imagines that it can be extended to other medical problems, like cancer. She is currently exploring the kind of design and interface that people want in this new technology.

The “TellMe” therapeutic sweater designed for children with autism spectrum disorder, and was recently exhibited at Microsoft in Seattle, Washington. The sweater helps children who have trouble sharing their feelings to practice communication with their guardians. The wearer is able to press different figures/buttons on the sweater to make sounds that correspond to positive and negative emotions. There is also a microphone so children can engage in communicative play through their clothing. The garment can be a great tool for improving the day-to-day communicative abilities of children with ASD.

Koo’s work on sustainable design principles includes research related to “transformable design,” which is one clothing item that can be transformed into different designs and functions. A transformable designed garment has versatile functions and can be worn for different occasions and in unpredictable weather. The design is focused on consumer’s behavior in the clothing lifecycle to encourage people to naturally engage in sustainable fashion acts. She has also explored various sustainable designs such as upcycling, zero-waste patternmaking, and natural dyeing processes.

In the area of functional garments, Koo partners with industrial brands and companies to make products that meet a variety of social needs. She designed a pair of protective gardening gloves for elderly people to protect their hands and prevent bruising while working with garden tools. She designed a light-weight, compactible, and portable uniform for emergency officers so that they can be quickly identified and clear up confusion in the wake of emergencies. Koo also worked with industrial designers to make a waterproof-pocket for board shorts which allows the wearer to keep their electronic devices dry.

Creative scholarship in fashion design

In addition to working with industrial brands, Koo does creative scholarship and presented her designs at international juried and invited exhibitions and fashion shows. She notes that the areas of wearable tech, functional garments and sustainability are productive areas for collaboration with different disciplines. Koo says “it creates synergies by collaborating with other disciplines so that we can creatively find problems and search for solutions in different views.”

Koo explains that fashion is a fundamental part of the human experience, which develops from the cultural aspects of our lives. “Clothing tells the story of human history,” she says, and garments are micro-environments that close to our body which can help solve problems of our lives in so many ways. “I want garments to be more than wearable products,” Koo says, “I try to develop things that account for people’s history, needs and wants, background, and their personal stories.” Thinking about mega and micro-trends, and an individual’s personal background in design work is a challenging task that Koo feels is best approach through collaboration with others.

Aside from her internationally-recognized solo exhibitions and her successful industry collaborations, Koo states that she hopes her design work will improve people’s lives. “My ultimate goal for every design project is to help others and to help improve quality of life and well-being,” she says.

Stefan Uhlig, Assistant Professor, Department of Comparative Literature

Stefan Uhlig knows about the power of extraordinary teachers to change a student’s life. His own path – from Germany to the United Kingdom and, now, to Davis – has been influenced by these important figures, people who made the course content almost insignificant with their contagious enthusiasm for their subject. Uhlig hopes to offer that same experience to his students as he starts his position as assistant professor in the Comparative Literature department this fall.

Research and teaching at Davis

Coming from the Oxbridge system, in which teacher-student interactions largely fall into two extremes – the large lecture hall or the very small, sometimes one-on-one tutorial – Uhlig looks forward to a happy medium here at UC Davis. “I’m really excited to teach in a context where the format is more flexible and more inclusive,” he explained. Compared to some other large, research-oriented universities, Uhlig described his pleasure in discovering that “this campus does actually have a serious commitment and an interest in undergraduate teaching.”

Having been at Cambridge for most of his academic career, first as a doctoral candidate and then as a professor, he looks forward to teaching new classes to new groups of students. “Writing Nature: 1750 to the Present,” for example, an upper-division undergraduate class that he will teach during the winter quarter, will provide him with a mix of familiar and unfamiliar material. “I can start somewhere that I know about and then go to places that I don’t,” he says of the course’s focus on not only Wordsworth, but also the American writers who admired him, such as Thoreau and Emerson.

Uhlig’s research interests have led him to consider poets such as Wordsworth as well as a number of other eighteenth-century writers, both English and European, for how they reflect on the process of writing itself. Uhlig says that, for all Wordsworth’s emphasis on practicality, “he produces more theoretical writings about poetry than just about anybody else in the Anglophone tradition” and displays “a commitment to an interest in theory, despite itself.” This set of concerns in the eighteenth century is also related to his current research project – a book on the “intellectual prehistory of literary studies.”

He clarifies his description of the project: “I say prehistory because the institutionalization of literary studies happens mainly in the nineteenth century.” He goes on to explain that “people who are interested in the history of the discipline…tend to be interested in nineteenth-century phenomena. My hunch is that, by the time you get to institutionalize something, you need to have a pretty good sense of what you’re doing. In that sense, the intellectual action needs to have taken place quite a bit earlier.”

Literary studies and the humanities

Uhlig is also interested in “what alternatives might have been available,” that is, why “we got to call the things we call literature, literature,” and not the study of, say, poetry or rhetoric. Literature is the “dark horse” of that particular competition, as fields such as rhetoric had been around for much longer, with many more centuries of cultural respect.

“The question that the book tries to ask is: What sort of knowledge does the study of literature promise? The hope is that, by trying to reconstruct that, you might get some sort of sense of why literature ‘wins,’ as it were.”

Uhlig feels that the kind of work he does – turning to intellectual history to learn more about the past life of his own discipline – is potentially valuable for getting “tools” to articulate just what it is that English and Comparative Literature scholars do and, more generally, how the humanities can effectively communicate with each other. Before the institutionalization of literary studies, after all, some elements of what English departments do existed, but they existed already entwined with politics, music, art, and other disciplines. Such a form of cooperation would be, as Uhlig says, “Interdisciplinary without losing an interest in what might be distinctive about what your discipline knows how to do.”


Stephanie Maroney, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies; and Katja Jylkka, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral student in English