The vast majority of organisms on Earth are microscopic and perceive an obscure world drastically different from the macroscopic world in which we have developed our intuition. Tiny creatures have limited sight and hearing; they mostly rely on mechanical and chemical cues to probe their environment. In addition, the surrounding fluid (e.g. air or water) feels viscous and does not flow easily, similar to what we’d experience in a pool of honey. Our research aims to unravel the adaptations needed to overcome these challenges by integrating behavioral observations, mathematical modeling, and experimental testing and validation.

collageWe observe a variety of organisms including bacteria, zooplankton (copepods), and snails. Observing their swimming, sensing and feeding behaviors in slow motion and high magnification often reveals unexpected patterns and phenomena. A quantitative analysis of the experimental data can unravel nature’s intriguing adaptations for survival.

We develop mathematical models inspired by experiments, which inform suitable assumptions, variables, and parameters that must be incorporated into the models. We perform computer simulations and mathematical calculations using techniques such as differential equations, dynamical systems, and stochastic processes. Theoretical results are obtained this way to test hypotheses, enlighten mechanisms, make predictions, and suggest additional experiments.

We build prototype robots to partly validate our models. The robots can be designed and controlled with precision to explore parameters beyond the range of living systems. Our long-term goal is to develop miniature robots that match or even exceed the capability of microscopic organisms for technological applications of the future.