Unlocking the secrets of Animal Locomotion
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Professor Robert Full
Photo ©2000 Peter Menzel, from Robo sapiens: Evolution of a New Species (MIT Press)
VIDEO: Robert Full tells why he studies cockroaches and other creepy crawlers.

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Full of fascination: Professor and students explore the world of movement

By Bonnie Azab Powell, Public Affairs

Integrative 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."

But as long-mysterious principles of motion are revealed, a world of future possibilities opens up.

Full 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.

Full's 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.

Discovering diversity

Full's 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 robots.

"You'd be amazed what students from different disciplines and backgrounds come up with," Full says. "It's that mixture that really gives Berkeley our edge."

Undergrad Tonia Hsieh, who co-authored a Nature paper with Full

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.

"Working 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."

Bug-eyed wonder

Since 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.

More 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.

He is fond of bragging about his undergraduates' achievements. For 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.

"Real research can be done by undergraduates. And I mean true discoveries, not just class experiments," he emphasizes.

In 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."

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