Meet Alex Ju: the HP Labs research engineer bringing an artistic spirit to cutting-edge tech

Bedazzled nails, jewelry and bivalves with bespoke furniture: This 24-year-old artist-engineer explores the quirky side of 3D printing.

By Garage Staff — October 25, 2018

Alex Ju spends her workdays helping HP innovate 3D printing on an industrial scale. But in her spare time, she’s innovating in a different way: by utilizing the same technology as a fertile new medium for art.

Ju is a research engineer in the Immersive Experiences Lab at HP’s headquarters in Palo Alto who works on new developments in Multi Jet Fusion technology. She graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where she studied fine art and earned a degree in jewelry and metalsmithing. In addition to working on MJF, she’s breaking new ground by applying her interests in tactile printing to the realm of jewelry and metal design. And as it turns out, she’s making some pretty — and pretty cool — things.

As a vital part of HP’s Immersive Experiences Lab, which seeks to transform how people communicate and collaborate through new technologies, Ju’s creative acumen makes her an exceptional colleague. “Alex is a fearless collaborator who is always excited to tackle a new challenge. She is always eager to apply her formidable design skills and point of view in a collegial way, even when a project looks impossible at first,” says the lab's chief experience architect Alex Thayer, of his fellow Alex. “People in our lab and within the broader organization jump at the chance to work with her because of her talent, positive energy, and unique perspective.”

The Garage caught up with Alex to talk about women in tech, 3D-printed faux fingernails (yes, really!), and her extremely unusual aquatic pets.

Alex Ju modeling her own 3D-printed jewelry.

Alex Ju modeling her own 3D-printed jewelry.

How did you get interested in making jewelry with tech?

I took a lot of STEM classes because my parents both have Ph.D.s in electrical engineering. I grew up in the Bay Area, and at first I didn't want to do anything tech-related — I preferred art class. I was applying to school to study STEM like my parents did, but since I was making a lot of jewelry as a hobby, I secretly applied to RISD, and I got in.

How did you end up at HP?

I studied jewelry and metalsmithing, and I had a wearable technology internship, which was my first exposure to working in the tech industry. Then I ended up doing a lot of stuff with 3D printing. It's sort of how I ended up in the lab. People generally are very surprised when they hear I majored in jewelry. But I actually still make quite a bit of it in my job. A lot of the jewelry-making skills I learned translate well to things I do now, like 3D modeling and post-processing.

What is a typical day like at the lab?

Every day is pretty different. I have a lot of freedom to create my own projects, and what I'm doing at any time can really vary. I try to do at least a third to half of my day doing something with my hands. Like today, I'm dyeing 3D-printed parts different colors. So I might start the day by unpacking my parts that I designed and sandblasting them. The other half of my day might be writing things, coding things, meeting up with people. I have a lot of collaborators spread out around HP, so I'll have a lot of remote conversing with them.

Alex Ju shows her 3D-printed nail art.

Alex Ju

Alex Ju shows her 3D-printed nail art.

We’ve heard you made 3D-printed press-on nails. Tell us more!

Sometimes I'm really impatient when I’m printing. I want something really fast. So, I thought, fingernails are really flat. You could print a lot of them at one time. My friends and I were big fans of crazy nail art in college, like the nail art you see on Instagram. I was looking at one post where a woman had pierced nails that had little chains connected to them, and I realized you could just 3D print the whole thing.

They're a great portable demo for when I want to show people internally what I’m working on. You can keep them in your purse, and when you get an opportunity, just bust them out and show people.

And you also make 3D-printed clothes, which you wore to Coachella.

Yes, I wore a 3D-printed skirt that I made. So when I was in school for jewelry design, I got really into chain mail, which involved looking at the border between jewelry and apparel. I wasn't really interested in fabric as a material, so I would make fabric out of wire and out of metal. Here, I discovered that the 3D-printed plastic works really well and wears well. With current 3D-printed apparel, a lot of it that we see in the media, are, like, hot models poorly clothed in some plastic. That's also why I made a pair of 3D-printed pants as well. I wanted to make a skirt that I could really wear somewhere, and then I wanted to make some pants, and a hat.

What was the reaction at Coachella from other concertgoers?

I think the main thing people are interested in is the fact that the 3D-printed fabric material makes a really interesting sound. [The rippling plastic makes a sound not unlike turning over a rain stick.]

In a male-dominated field, it seems like you're thinking about ways that women can avail 3D-printed technology, which many people in the industry might overlook.

Totally. I always see myself so much as an artist, and when I was in school, I wanted to make projects about technology. But I realized they wouldn't be effective unless they were put in front of powerful people, who are often men.

One challenge, for example, is that a lot of men don’t know the difference between tonal acrylic nails and just using nail polish, so I sometimes have to lay groundwork when presenting the nails internally. I also am part of the Palo Alto Women Impact Network [an internal employee group] at HP.  I'm the social events lead, so I’m helping create a community for women.

Are there any artists or thought leaders who you admire?

An artist I really like is Samuel Yates. He was one of my professors at RISD, and he used to live in Palo Alto and made a bunch of art about the area. He made this project that was controversial at the time called The Color of Palo Alto, where he rode a bicycle through every street in the city while taking photographs in an aim to find the city’s “signature color.” [The final result was actually four colors: three shades of green and a teal-ish blue.]

OK, now tell us about these pet oysters of yours that we keep hearing about.

I really like marine biology. At RISD, I was in a class about ocean technologies, and I thought it might be interesting to keep oysters as pets because lots of people think of them as just inanimate objects. I bought them at a Rhode Island seafood market, though I’ve since acquired more from my local Whole Foods and other market stalls in San Francisco. They’re generally a couple of years old by the time you get them. I feed them live phytoplankton that I buy on Amazon and just give them a bit of that every other day or so.

I make videos starring them on my website, and I also use them as kind of a metaphor sometimes. I have discovered that sometimes it's much easier to talk about, jokingly, the lack of representation of oysters in technology rather than the lack of representation of women.

What would you tell other women who want to get into 3D printing or work with similar technology?

The number one thing I would say is there's no right way to get into technology. When I was growing up, I thought you had to major in engineering to work at a company like HP. But I realized that because I love jewelry, I'm eager to be an expert at it. I know more because I care more about it. And then I'm able to bring a valuable perspective as well. It’s great to be interested in software engineering, but also, not everyone has to be a software engineer. Do what you're passionate about!


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