Zebrafish Display - CODAworx

Zebrafish Display

Client: Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

Location: Boston, MA, United States

Completion date: 2021

Project Team

Hardware and Software

Nathan Lachenmyer

Sitara Systems

Hardware and Software

Sadiya Akasha

Sitara Systems

Concept Design

Small Design Firm

3D-Printing Support





An interactive sculpture with 477 3D-printed zebrafish has been redesigned using innovative, touchless technology. Nathan Lachenmyer, co-founder of Sitara Systems, helped create and design the original installation for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in 2012 in partnership with Small Design Firm. The Sitara Systems team collaborated to design and develop the update, which was made due to evolving attitudes towards touch-based interactives, especially in a cancer research and treatment center, where the health of the immunocompromised is a priority.

Each fish, with a unique algorithmically-generated shape, is engraved with personal inscriptions and previously responded to touch by displaying an individual message on a nearby screen. The messages honor patients, caregivers, and loved ones from donors who made a philanthropic gift in support of the institute.

Every zebrafish was updated in materials, finishing, and coating, and has been integrated with near-field technology (NFC) which allows each fish to be ‘activated’ by being scanned by any modern phone. This triggers the chosen fish to light up and the wall’s illumination patterns begin to transform, while the corresponding messages from donors appear on the displays embedded in the wall and on the smartphones of visitors.


The Zebrafish Display has been an evolving, collaborative project. The original installation was constructed with the intention of allowing donors a chance to translate their support for cancer research into personal messages. “The Zebrafish Display is already well-loved by the donors, patients, and staff at Dana-Farber, so giving it new life has had high stakes but is also a deeply rewarding, fun project that focuses on using new, innovative technology to avoid touch.” said Sadiya Akasha, co-founder of Sitara Systems.

The display uses Zebrafish, an animal extensively used in genetic cancer research, as a metaphor for how our combined efforts, however small, come together to create something greater. The school of 3d-printed fish has each fish in a unique, algorithmically generated position, as well as engraved with a unique message from its’ donor.

A decade later, the emphasis was not only in making some fresh changes to the Zebrafish Display, but also in placing extra priority on cancer patients constantly at risk from germs—leading to the novel, touch-free design and technology. “We wanted to retain the emotion that the interactivity brought to this installation but modernize it, which aligned with the concerns of the Covid-19 era.”


The installation was completely updated and redesigned using Near-Field Communication (NFC). This is the same wireless technology that allows for data transfers between devices that are in close proximity to each other, which is what allows for the contactless payments we have now become accustomed to. Wiring runs through each fish through a small steel rod which connects to individual circuit boards. The entire installation is mounted on a deep blue colored undulating wall with monitors tucked among the school of fish.

Every individual fish needed to be reprinted and this provided an opportunity to update the quality of material and finishing techniques. We collaborated with Shapeways and did extensive research and prototyping to decide on the best choice for the new 3D-printed fish, ultimately settling on Nylon 12, with Premium finishing using Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) technology. Three layers of a UV-blocking coat were applied by hand to each fish to ensure they would retain their bright, white color and repel dust to require less cleaning (and less degradation from handling) over time.

Additional Information

Why the zebrafish? These tiny tropical fish, measuring only around 3 centimeters, have some remarkable advantages in genetic cancer research. Surprisingly, the zebrafish shares 70 percent of the same genes with humans, as well as being able to develop most of the same types of tumors. That along with their translucent skin, which allows for easy observing the growth of tumors. Investigators, like those at the forefront of cancer research at Dana-Farber, have benefited from the use of zebrafish in their discoveries of lifesaving therapies for decades. For this reason, the zebrafish became a key element in the design of this installation.