of fascination: Professor and students explore the world
Bonnie Azab Powell, Public Affairs
biology professor Robert Full emphasizes that the goal of
his study of animal motion is, first and foremost, to uncover
the secrets of nature. "These animals are interesting
by themselves, and they can also tell us a story," says
Full. "At the rate species are disappearing, we need
to study these things before their secrets are lost forever."
as long-mysterious principles of motion are revealed,
a world of future possibilities opens up.
and team are applying their findings to a startling spectrum
of human endeavors. The locomotive principles he has identified
have been used to create robots that may someday perform search
and rescue functions. Biomaterials are being developed that
could revolutionize the creation of artificial muscles. The
professor also has succeeded in synthesizing part of a gecko's
microscopic hair. No, it's not the launch of a new line of
lizard-inspired wigs: Full and Ronald Fearing, professor of
electrical engineering at UC Berkeley, are trying to duplicate
the magically sticky properties of a gecko's toes in order
to give the world a better adhesive.
findings also translate into pure entertainment. He has worked
with the Character Shop, an animatronics company, on giant
cockroach-like robots and the limbs of robots for the movie
Mimic. And working as a consultant to Pixar Animation Studios
on the blockbuster movie A Bug's Life, he videotaped ants,
caterpillars, cockroaches and other insects walking and running.
Full's work made the animation more lifelike. Revealing how
real insects moved also helped in the development of the movie
bugs' personalities. However, character insight remains an
art, not a science: cockroaches were still depicted as the
scourge of the bug and human worlds.
office is alive with toys. Plush beetles and action figures
from A Bug's Life share a desk crawling with bits of Lego
robots and plastic-jointed crabs. Some are gifts from grateful
students; others are the product of a "biomechatronics"
course that Full crafted to stir together knowledge from several
departments. After learning a few basic principles of animal
locomotion, undergraduates get to design their own nature-inspired
be amazed what students from different disciplines and backgrounds
come up with," Full says. "It's that mixture that
really gives Berkeley our edge."
Tonia Hsieh, who co-authored a Nature paper with Full
values heterogeneity in the lab as much as the classroom.
"Diversity enables discovery" is the phrase he uses
to describe the thrust of his research, which combines comparative
physiology and biomechanics. His PolyPEDAL
Laboratory employs as many as 15 postgraduate and undergraduate
researchers at a time, studying how cockroaches and other
insects, crabs, and lizards walk and run in order to discover
and refine universal principles of locomotion. Those principles
then give rise to a flood of collaborations with engineers
and researchers in other fields.
with engineers has been wonderful, and the way it works
best is as a two-way street," says Full. "We're
able to discover things about organisms and give engineers
new design ideas. And with their rigorous approach to
looking at systems, they then come up with new devices
for measuring, new algorithms and new ways to think about
problems for us."
childhood, Full has been fascinated by how things move.
As a young boy, he recalls being enthralled watching
a ghost crab scuttle across a Florida beach. And he
can still sound like an excited 10-year-old when he
talks about his research ... or his students. The recipient
of many teaching awards, including what some call Berkeley's
highest honor, the Distinguished Teaching Award, Full
makes it a priority to give hands-on experience to any
student truly interested in research.
than 60 undergraduates half of them women and
underrepresented minorities have worked in his
lab during the past 15 years. That's unusual in a school
renowned for its outstanding graduate student researchers.
is fond of bragging about his undergraduates' achievements.
example: undergraduate PolyPEDAL assistants have won one or
both of the Integrative Biology Department's top awards 11
out of the last 15 years. In two other years, they won awards
in other departments. And whenever he mentions a breakthrough
he's had, such as getting a gecko hair to "latch on"
to a filament, he is careful to credit the students who helped
him in this case Tonia Hsieh (above right), who is
listed as a coauthor on the journal article Full later wrote
for Nature about the gecko hair experiment. Undergraduate
collaborators have credits on nearly 30 of his publications,
an amazing record.
research can be done by undergraduates. And I
mean true discoveries, not just class experiments,"
return for these opportunities, Full expects a serious commitment
of time and attention from his students. "A lot of people
ask me, 'Why not stick to postdocs?'" says Full, who
does have several graduate students and post docs working
in his lab. "Well, they're more expensive. Seriously,
all the students here are so good it's unbelievable. Undergraduates
just have to be taught how to apply the methods and theories
they've learned. And I wouldn't be here myself if someone
hadn't bothered to give me an opportunity when I was an undergraduate."