LEGO pieces are nearly all some variety of a cube shape.
Nature, on the other hand, abhors straight edges and right angles.
“There are a lot of shapes in nature,” said Union College Biology Club president Salman Syed. “Almost none of them are squares.”
That’s why the Union College Biology Club’s second LEGO competition was such a challenge. Builders were charged with creating something biology-related out of geometric bricks. Imagine building a full-sized oak tree out of cinder blocks. Skill is required.
Friday evening, a side room in Union’s Beuth House was filled with competitors.
Syed laid out the rules. Build something esthetic and relevant to biology. Build it in 35 minutes. Defend its merit. Win a $25 gift card.
Then he emptied four tubs of LEGO bits onto a table. The crisp sound of brand new pieces tumbling onto tabletop apparently flipped a switch in the brains of the competitors — turning them for a moment into eager children. They rushed in around Syed, grabbing double fistfuls of bricks.
Biology club co-president Gerardo Reyes retreated to a corner of the room, mounted a chair and shouted “sharing is caring” over the din.
LEGO holds a place in the hearts of people, it seems. A few guys arrived well before the event’s 5 p.m. kickoff. They sat around waxing nostalgic on childhood builds.
“My dad worked at the school when I was in kindergarten,” said physics major Harrisonn Griffin, “so I’d get there early and use up every one of the school’s LEGO pieces before the other kids arrived. That sounds really selfish now that I say it.”
Another student, mechanical engineering major Daniel Sakakini, was once so committed to his LEGOs that he organized the bricks in his dresser, displacing his clothing to be strewn across the bedroom floor.
“They were basically my only toy,” said physics major Will Harney.
Marian Chee also has a history with LEGO. She and a build partner won last year’s competition, landing the $25 campus bookstore gift card for a model Tree of Life. She still lives in the building, but didn’t compete this year. As people gathered, she drifted past on her way to an evening of study.
“I didn’t want to win again,” she said.
Growing up in New York City’s Chinatown, Chee didn’t have dolls. She had the hand-me-down LEGO bricks of her nanny’s children.
“That’s why I’m a mechanical engineering major,” she said. “I was fascinated by how things went together.”
Her engineering brain was well-suited to the difficult task of building nature’s irregular structures from man-made blocks. She said the key to success is simplicity.
“We started simple,” she said, “and added detail as we had time.”
Very few competitors took her advice. Creations ranged from a replica of one builder’s right hand to lizards and a color-coordinated butterfly.
As the crowd hunched over projects, Syed paced. He said the competition grew out of a desire to link art and science. Most humanities majors don’t think about biology or physics, and vice versa, he said. Biology-inspired sculpture brings the two halves of the college population together through a near-universal love of LEGO.
According to Reyes, the club didn’t actually intend for its competition to coincide with the theatrical release of “The LEGO Movie.” It was a happy accident, Reyes said, prompting a few college professors to bring their children.
In a room packed with college students, half a dozen members of LEGO’s actual recommended age group picked through the pieces.
“We didn’t expect kids to be here,” Griffin said.
He and a few friends escaped the crowded events room, constructing their piece on a piano bench in the hall. It was a sperm cell.
“We added eyes,” he said. “That’s kid-friendly, right?”
He rushed to finish the articulated flagella as Syed counted down the minutes.
A big part of the event, according to Syed, is the pitch. Last year someone built a car. They insisted it ran on biofuel. They didn’t win, but were at least considered.
With a half-dozen young children watching wide-eyed, Griffin struggled with his pitch.
“Every year millions of parents have to have the talk with their kids,” he said, holding the delicate creation. “We’d like to reinvent that conversation.”
The sperm did make a good run at the win, but was edged out by a replica cell nucleus. When choosing the winner, Syed, Reyes and several other biology club leaders weighed esthetics, relevance and the varying eloquence of the builder’s pitch.
The winning cell was built by Wayne Fu, Mihir Patel and Krishna Pokuri, three biology majors of various types. They included two cell walls surrounding a surprisingly accurate DNA structure. Nothing else had a chance.
Fu was modest about the victory.
“It was a team effort,” he said.