Interdisciplinary science worms out new ideas

Often, the most unexpected and scientific of revelations can be found at the crossroads of different disciplines, which is why ASU strives to foster transdisciplinary research as much as possible.

“It’s where all the interesting stuff is,” Jansen said. “It’s hard to pick up a book on laminate mechanics as a biologist and try to figure it out and apply it to your own research. But those sorts of intersections are where most of the unknowns are in science, and that’s where we’re going to find the most interesting breakthroughs.”

Franz says this type of interdisciplinary research can often yield great rewards.

“We tend to look for other disciplines when we arrive at boundaries within our own,” Franz said, “and there’s promise to go beyond them with insights from a traditionally separate discipline.”

The interdisciplinary field of biomechanics — studying how a plant or animal moves on a physics level — is one such area. It’s a challenging field of study, but “in the end it’s worthwhile because you’re finding things that nobody has ever seen before, or even thought about asking before in a more traditional context,” Jansen said. “It’s really only possible when you have that interdisciplinary angle to see some of these questions or even begin to tackle them.”

Jansen is no stranger to pairing with engineers for his research. He has previously worked with Fulton Schools faculty members Dan AukesHeni Ben Amor and their graduate students on nature-inspired robots and artificial intelligence. But for something as important as his dissertation, Jansen knew ASU was a unique place that would accept such an interdisciplinary project.

“If I had been anywhere other than ASU I don’t think (my dissertation project) would have flown,” Jansen said. “The faculty at ASU were incredibly supportive of a project that was going in a direction where no one could see how it was going to turn out, and they were supportive of me doing interdisciplinary research.”

Biologists engineer new ideas from interdisciplinary science

For biologists, identifying the underlying structural properties of a weevil’s snout has important ramifications for insect research.

“I think the idea of a modified exoskeleton used to adapt to different amounts of force for different types of usage is going to be really common if we look at it a bit more closely,” Jansen said. “If we look at other systems I think we’ll see the exact same type of modifications, or something completely new, but I think it’s more common than we give it credit for — we take the material for granted.”

Franz, Jansen’s doctoral committee chair, says the results were surprising and the research wowed the dissertation committee.

“(Jansen) made large methodological leaps while analyzing his study system in a way that advanced both evolutionary biology and mechanical modeling of the insect cuticle,” Franz said.

A background in entomology wasn’t enough to get the job done. An interdisciplinary collaboration and learning new skills in biomechanics, materials science and even mathematics were key to Jansen’s success.

The recent graduate says he’s most proud of getting his work published in the Journal of Structural Biology, where he outlined the mathematical model he created for his dissertation to describe the mechanics of the acorn weevil’s exoskeleton. This was the fundamental basis for understanding why the weevil’s snout structure led to the strong-but-flexible mechanical behaviors the research team witnessed.

“I think the more we look at living materials the more we’re going to find completely weird, off-the-wall types of innovations that we could borrow from.” — doctoral student Michael “Andrew” Jansen

To do so, he took a page from the engineers’ handbook to create simulations of insect behavior from 3D models of the insect. Jansen says biologists often don’t typically measure the material properties of the species they’re studying before they begin plugging them into simulations. He now knows from experience why they don’t (it’s very difficult to do), but accurate measurements are important to show the functions of the exoskeleton cuticle material.

“Any mechanical engineers or materials scientists would tell you if you give the model the wrong material properties, you’re going to get the wrong results,” Jansen said. “This is something that everyone normally does, but if you look through the biological literature they just ignore a lot of aspects of the cuticle’s behavior, which is a problem.”

He hopes to inspire his fellow biologists to take the time to get their models correct so they provide realistic insights into what the natural world can do.

Jansen thinks his research is just the tip of the weevil’s snout in terms of what scientists and engineers can learn from insect biomechanics. There are approximately 60,000 species of weevil alone, and with more than a million known species of insect and millions more to be discovered, the possibilities are endless.

“Hierarchically structured materials is a bit of an emerging field, especially in living materials,” Jansen said. “I think the more we look at living materials the more we’re going to find completely weird, off-the-wall types of innovations that we could borrow from.”

Top photo: The Curculio glandium acorn weevil is a type of small beetle that uses its long, curved snout to drill holes. An interdisciplinary collaboration between researchers from Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and School of Life Sciences studied Curculio glandium’s relative, Curculio linneaus, which led to the discovery of unique properties of weevil snouts that could benefit both engineering and biology. The acorn weevil snout’s exoskeleton structure could hold the key to a future of new material structures that are stronger and more flexible than what can be made today.

Monique Clement

Communications specialist , Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


The full article can be found here.