Olympic shark suit inventor thanks Natural History Museum after award nomination

By Rachel Hayward and Ben Miller | 29 April 2009
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Photo showing a long haired blonde woman sitting in front of a shark tank
Nominee for the European Inventor of the Year 2009: Fiona Fairhurst© European Patent Office

From the world of science, Biomimetician Fiona Fairhurst is a great role model and inspiration for your pupils.

It's not often that Oliver Crimmen, Senior Fish Curator at the Natural History Museum, gets to help a specimen as aquatic as superhuman swimmer Michael Phelps.

But after lending their expertise and collections to inventor Fiona Fairhurst, who has created a revolutionary swimsuit for top Olympians including Phelps, the Museum can claim an important role in his haul of medals at the Games.

Fairhurst is a biomimetician – fashioning scientific breakthroughs by studying nature – and her highly innovative Fastskin bathing suit, based on shark skins in a commission for swimwear company Speedo, is now essential kit for Phelps and his fellow top Olympians.

"I find so much inspiration in nature – evolution is great, and what better places to explore and discover it than our museums?" she asks, speaking from Prague, where she is a nominee at the Inventor of the Year 2009 awards tonight (April 28 2009).

"I love going to the Natural History Museum and Oliver was fantastically helpful."

"If you want to learn about nature then the Natural History Museum is the place," says Crimmen, who is understandably proud of the Museum's association with Fairhurst.

"We really enjoy enquiries from members of the public, but Fiona's was quite special. She already knew a bit about sharks and their hydrodynamic advantage in the water but wanted to know more."

Using the latest technology to scrutinise pickled sharks and squares of skin, Fairhurst worked with her colleagues from Speedo to change the design of swimwear forever.

"A smooth surface is not the best way to go fast, but nature has found an ingenious a way of coping with the turbulence of moving through water," she explains.

"Through a process of evolution, the shark has developed ridges on its skin, known as denticles. These reduce the amount of water that comes into contact with the skin, thereby lessening the drag force on the shark."

Fairhurst remains modest when asked about her chances of winning the award. "I'm shocked about being the only British woman here," she says. "This is the first time clothing has been nominated and it's such a hard patent to go for."

Her combination of scientific knowledge, design skill and competitive swimming experience helped her cause. "I love science and water," she adds.

"I worked with Michael Phelps when he was 17 years old and we're still in touch. He’s a real character, very funny. I used to have to wake him up in the morning and get him to swimming training.

"He was treated just like everyone else, there were no special favours. When he was naughty he had to walk back home on his own, rather than come back with the team."

Fairhurst's dedicated work in her research field looks certain to concoct more important inventions.

"In the light of the kind of work people do to be up for an award, I'm so honoured," she concludes. "Finding something you love is what it's all about."

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