Bioinspiration – crossing interdisciplinary borders

Bioinspiration – crossing interdisciplinary borders

It is really going to happen! We talked about this for YEARS, and now we are finally going to see it come to fruition.

bioinspiration_logo

Kate Loudon and I have known each other for a long time. It was kind of inevitable that two women who were part of the leadership of the Entomological Society of America’s Section B, now the Physiology Biochemistry and Toxicology (PBT) section, would become friends. We are actually from THAT era where female leadership in the ESA was a rarity (not anymore!).

Since we both have an interest in insect physiology (broadly) and biomechanics (specifically) we started talking about organizing a bioinspiration symposium. Fundamental insect biomechanics studies have inspired technologies for some time now. For about 5 years I have been teaching courses on bioinspiration and I use Kate’s research on bed bug-killing materials as an example of innovations that can be inspired by nature and benefit society. So the match seemed natural. Also, we really like each other and would use any excuse to collaborate on something.

It took a while but we managed to put together an awesome symposium with prestigious speakers on the biggest entomological stage ever; the 2016 XXV International Congress of Entomology to be held in Orlando, FL (Sept 25th-30th).

We are so thrilled about the line-up. There is a great variety of speakers (topics, nationality, ethnicity, gender) and we can’t wait for them to interact with each other and other interested entomologists. Some of our speakers have never been to an entomological meeting. We expect to get them hooked, or at least speak well of us entomologists once they are back at their home institutions.

We hope that as a result of this symposium new collaborations will develop, be it to delve into new research questions or to explore educational avenues.

Let me first introduce you to the speakers. Hopefully as the symposium draws closer I can share a little bit more about the topics and speakers in follow-up posts.

  • Our first speaker will be Dr. Robert Wood who is the Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences in the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Prof. Wood is also a founding core faculty member of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, a power-house in the field of bioinspiration.  The Wood lab is probably most famous among entomologists for their work on robobee – a miniature flying, and now also sensing, robot inspired by biology.

  • The next speaker will be Chen Li from Johns Hopkins University. Prof. Li coined his own research topic: terradynamics. Similar to how aero- and hydrodynamic principles have shaped our knowledge about animal locomotion in air and water it is Prof Li’s goal to better understand animal locomotion on complex (always shifting) terrains, thus his creation of the terradymics lab at JHU.  Cockroaches feature prominently in his research.

  • Next we switch from robotics to bioinspired materials. Kate (Dr. Catherine Loudon, University of California at Irvine) will share her work on how small structures on bean leaves kill bed bugs and how these structures (and their special characteristics) have spurred interest in the development of physical insecticidal bioinspired materials.
  • Faithful readers of this blog will know by now how enamored I am by the insect cuticle. I am therefore glad that we will have Dr. Stevin Gehrke (Fred Kurata Memorial Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Kansas) talk about the physical properties of beetle elytral cuticle and why this type of biomaterial may have many possible applications.
Tenebrio_molitor_(Tenebrionidae)_(9668731725).jpg

Tenebrio molitor with characteristic elytra covering the hind wings. By gbohne from Berlin, Germany

  • Next I will discuss a relatively new project from my lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in collaboration with Dr. Nenad Miljkovic from Illinois’s Mechanical Science and Engineering Department and Dr. Donald Cropek who is a chemist from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Over the past few months we have initiated a comparative study of native Illinois cicadas’s wings to determine physical and chemical attributes that make the wings have (super)hydrophobic, self-cleaning and maybe even antimicrobial characteristics. This collaboration has been really fun and I have learned about a lot of new techniques and I hope to share some of my excitement with the symposium’s audience (Bouncing water droplets anyone?!!!!).
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Neotibicen dorsatus at Loda Prairie, July 2016. By Marianne Alleyne

  • Another interesting biological material is, of course, spider silk. Dr. Crystal Chaw from Dr. Cheryl Hayashi‘s lab at the University of California at Riverside will explain how studies on the evolution of spider silk have helped in the engineering of artificial silk production.

  • From biological materials we next move to different types of flow in insects. First Hodjat Pendar from Prof Jake Socha’s lab (Virginia Tech) will be talking about how the insect’s tracheal system (which is actually linked to other physiological systems) can serve as inspiration for novel flow control. It is a fascinating topic which I have touched upon previously in a blog post.

  • Flow sensing at a small scale is definitely a topic that is of interest to engineers. And it is something that insects do very well. Dr. Jérôme Casas from the University of Tours (France) will present some of the work he has been doing with Dr. Gijs Krijnen (University of Twente, The Netherlands) on the fluid dynamics of olfaction in insects.
  • Another amazing sensor found in insects is the IR sensor in pyrophilous beetles such as in the genus Melanophila. Will we ever be able to engineer an IR sensor as sophisticated as the ones found in beetles? Dr. Helmut Schmitz (Institute of Zoology of the University of Bonn) will share his work to explain how an understanding of the active amplification mechanism seen in the beetle’s IR sensor might help bring us closer to a robust and sensitive bioinspired IR sensor.
irorgan

IR organ of Melanophila acuminata. Schmitz & Bousack (2012) PLoS ONE 7(5): e37627.

  • At this point in the symposium we are shifting gears just a little bit to talk about how to actually DO bioinspired design, and how can we best teach our students to come up with successful bioinspired designs. Most people when they first hear about bioinspiration or biomimicry they immediately think this line of thinking makes total sense. Biologists want to contribute and feel even more justified to delve into fundamental biological questions. Engineers are happy to add bioinspiration into their imaginary toolbox. But for bioinspiration to be successful, to actually have as an end result a bioinspired technology that is based on real biological data, biologists and engineers have to work together. And that is not always so straightforward (Writes the entomologist who has been married to a mechanical engineer for 20+ years. Trust me, it is not straightforward.). Prof. Ashok Goel (Georgia Tech, Co-Director of the  Center for Biologically Inspired Design. will discuss some of the cognitive challenges that he has encountered when working with collaborators and students on biologically inspired design projects. What he has learned about how engineers and biologists approach certain problems is fascinating.
  • The symposium will again switch topics somewhat by next delving into social insect behavior. First up will be Dr. Ted Pavlic (Arizona State University, Associate Director for Research at The Biomimicry Center at ASU) who will talk about how social insects make group decisions and how that knowledge can be transferred to create smart and adaptive teams of robots.
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Eciton hamatum workers on the trail, Jatun Sacha reserve, Napo Ecuador. Alexander Wild.

  • We will end the symposium with another social insect talk, this one by Dr. Deborah Gordon (Stanford University). Prof. Gordon will talk about her research on collective behavior in ants and how they have influenced engineered networks.

Kate and I hope you can join us for our symposium, either in person or virtually via Twitter or Instagram (we will use hashtag #ICE2016BioI and #ICE2016) and follow-up blog posts. Feel free to use Twitter to ask questions of the speakers (@Cotesia1).

“See” you on the 29th!

 

Quorum Sensing On Capitol Hill

Quorum Sensing On Capitol Hill

Last Fall I was selected to be a member of the inaugural class of the Entomological Society of America (ESA) Science Policy Fellows. Last week came our first big test – be advocates for entomology and entomological research on Capitol Hill. And guess what? We had a very productive time.

I’ve wanted to write about our Congressional visits from before I even left on my trip, but was struggling to find a hook that would pull together government, politics and bioinspiration. I could go with a story about dominance hierarchies (=pecking order) in both human and animal societies, or one about gift giving and the influence it can buy, or an essay about insects that steal from other insects. Or was this finally going to be the blog post where I could discuss my favorite topic in all of biology: parasitism?

Actually, turns out that the Congressional visits were challenging, exciting, beneficial, fun, inspiring, etc. The most appropriate bioinspired analogy I can make is to quorum sensing seen in social insects.

Now what? We better find the best new nest site quickly. Picture by Eran Finkle via Flickr.com

“Now what? We better find the best new nest site quickly.”
Picture by Eran Finkle via Flickr.com

Honeybees, for instance, use quorum sensing to find a new nest site. A swarm comprised of 10,000+ bees decides on the best spot to start a new nest, not by letting just the queen decide, but by gathering information from different scout bees. A couple of hundred scout bees convey information to others in the swarm about the quality of about a dozen possible nest sites. Nest sites can be superb, mediocre or lousy, or somewhere in between. Based on the information about the possible site’s quality conveyed by the scout bees the swarm as a whole decides which site is most suitable. It is important that all information is freely shared, no bee’s opinion is stifled. Coalitions of scouts that have discovered a certain site will try their best to convince other scouts to go check out a potential site. The better the potential site, the more vigorous the bee will waggle-dance. A more vigorous dance will convince more uncommitted scouts to go check out the site. So there is competition between the coalitions, but what is important is that the uncommitted scout does not blindly follow the information. She will go check out the site but will decide for herself if she will advertise the site when she returns to the swarm. In other words, acceptance of a poor site (through cheating or through the creation of mass hysteria) is impossible. Through quorum sensing many opinions are heard and evaluated, yet this is done rather quickly so that the swarm is not vulnerable for long. Options are not debated “to death”.

Probably not the best nest site.  Picture by By Nino Barbieri (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

“Probably not the best nest site.”
Picture by Nino Barbieri (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons]


Good group decisions, the bees show us, can be fostered by endowing a group with three key habits:
1. structuring each deliberation as an open competition of ideas,
2. promoting diversity of knowledge and interdependence of opinions among a group’s members
3. and aggregating the opinions in a way that meets time constraints yet wisely exploits the breadth of knowledge with the group.

Seeley, Visscher and Passino

American Scientist May-June 2006


What we can learn from honeybee democracies (yes, there is even a fantastic book on this topic) is that any democratic government can make the best decisions, within a reasonable time period, when it goes through phases of collective fact-finding, vigorous debate, and consensus building. Quorum sensing is a type of decision-making process in any decentralized system – one without a clear boss. Any decision-making group should rely on information of individuals with knowledge about the topic, shared interests (stakeholders) and mutual respect. Debate should be relied upon, diverse solutions should be sought, and the majority should be counted on for a dependable resolution. Sound familiar? Too idealistic?

Probably also not the best nest site. Picture by MSgt Todd E. Enderle, 309 AMU/MXACW, 13 Oct 2005, submitted by Wayne Fordham, HQ AFCESA/CESM, Tyndall AFB, FL.

Probably also not the best nest site.
Picture by MSgt Todd E. Enderle, Tyndall AFB, FL. via Flickr.com

I may seem a little idealistic here but while visiting the Senate’s and House of Representative’s offices I definitely had the feeling that constituents, experts, stakeholders and staffers were coming together to share information in an effort to help inform the legislators. All our meetings with staffers, and in my case in person with a Sen. Dick Durbin: D-IL and Rep. Rodney Davis: R-IL, were worthwhile. Staffers seemed interested, if not always knowledgeable about entomology (though many of them were). And it was clear to us that staffers were keen to have access to the best scientific information, preferably written/conveyed by experts using clear terminology and in a concise manner.

The leadership of the Entomological Society of America has put resources into the science policy fellowships, science policy committees and communication about science policy with the understanding that the pay-off may not become obvious until a few years from now. Even what this “pay-off” may be is not clear – it can vary from ESA name recognition, more familiarity with the field of entomology among legislators (beyond pesticide-spraying- or butterfly-net-waving-scientists), more expert entomological input into important policy decisions, job opportunities for entomologists with a science policy interest, more state and federal funding for entomology, etc.

  • In principle the United States government encourages collective fact finding with an open sharing of ideas. Again, I felt that our message was welcomed, but we, ESA members, need to become more proactive in sharing our message. We need to continue to visit State and Federal government offices and explain to them why research on insects is important – why sustained funding is important. We need to be more proactive about sharing our entomological science and expertise. ESA needs to set the agenda, not react to it. If you, the scout bee, are not showing up, or do not have the credibility, then your opinion will not be considered. Over time, with name/research-field recognition, your expert science-based opinion may become more valued (of course, this does not happen in honeybee swarms, and neither does the importance of money in buying name recognition – this is where the bioinspiration model (or is it our current democracy model?) breaks down).
  • On paper a strong democracy should promote diversity of knowledge and vigorous debate among stakeholders. There is, however, a difference between scientific evidence and pseudo-science and the two should not receive equal consideration. Scientific evidence may also not line up with constituent (stakeholder) economic, social and cultural interests. And, again, money and power may outshine solid scientific evidence and stifle debate about the science. By asserting ourselves as the premier source of entomological science we should be able to be part of the debate.
  • The strength of quorum sensing in relation to honeybee swarm nest finding is that in a relatively short time period a consensus is reached. Currently consensus building in Congress on many issues is, let’s just say, difficult. But when it comes to a topic such as Pollinator Health then I am pretty hopeful. (On the issue of the importance of pollinator health we have generally strong bipartisan support.) One of the greatest weaknesses that I see is that even within the ESA itself consensus building is taking too long. For more than 6 months members have been working hard on position statement regarding Pollinator Health and Tick-borne diseases. Meanwhile Congressional hearings have been held, and White House “national strategies” have been set in motion – sometimes with little or no input from ESA. Again, we should help set the agenda, not just react to it!

Our message as entomological experts (7000+ ESA members) will be heard depending on if our information is backed up by good scientific evidence, is supplied in a timely manner and communicated properly. In addition, our representatives in government need to be open to receiving this information. Their willingness to incorporate our advice may depend on their committee assignments, ability to understand the topic, their home districts and states, their constituents, etc. ESA has to start somewhere in gaining more influence and securing sustained research funding for their members. I believe this month’s congressional visits by the science policy fellows was a great beginning.

HoneybeeSwarmTree

Now we may be on to something. Picture by Ontheway2it via Flickr.com

Note: I want to thank Lewis-Burke Associates, the government relations firm that is working with ESA to train the Science Policy Fellows. We learn so much from them. Thank goodness for their collective sense of humor and endless patience!


Further reading:

Ariel Rivers also blogged about our DC trip: Entomological Society of America (ESA) Science Policy Fellows do DC!

http://www.amazon.com/Honeybee-Democracy-Thomas-D-Seeley/dp/0691147213/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1432161168&sr=8-1&keywords=honeybee+democracy

or the crib notes version

http://www.amazon.com/Habits-Highly-Effective-Honeybees-Learn-ebook/dp/B005Z67DAO/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1432175059&sr=8-2&keywords=seeley+honeybee+democracy


Some more tweets related to our DC trip. Sadly we were unable to self-organize to take a group picture – guess the ESA Science Policy Fellows are more similar to solitary bees.

Durbin

I met personally with Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL) (below) and Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL). Pictures provided to me by their offices. Also pictured is Karen Mowrer from Lewis-Burke Associates.

Davis

So meta: A blog post about my poster about blogging.

Last week I attended the Annual Meetings of the (other) ESA in Austin, TX. Actually, I kinda helped organize that meeting. (More about that in my next post, which will focus on my time on the Program Committee.)

When I first submitted the title for the poster in June I had only just started this blog and I thought it would be a great idea to cover the numerous posts I would have written by November.

So, yeah, about that….

Still, it was a great exercise to go through and it helped keep me sane during the weeks leading up to the meeting.

ESA13PosterGrab

Click here for the pdf version of the poster

Below is a picture of what it looked like at the conference. I was unable to spend much time with it since the official social hour for the poster session was right at the time of various committee meetings (obviously poor planning on the part of the Program Committee). Judging by the bump in views at my blog some people did find it interesting.

As I mention on the poster, social media has enriched my scientific life. One of the best parts of the meeting was therefore to meet, or catch-up, with some of my ento-tweeps. (Bummed that I had to miss the “official” tweetup).

One of my major “accomplishments” as Program Co-Chair was to get ESA to provide these twitter stickers for name-badges:

Even people not at the conference were represented via a Twitter fall (The stream did not always work correctly, something to improve for next year.)

For more details on why twitter (and, in my opinion, other social media outlets) can be useful to entomologists please read @derekhennen‘s take at EntomologyToday.

To end this short post I’ll just include a tweet from @bug_girl because it reflects my sentiments exactly! Ento Bloggers Rule!