I joined the Department as a Lecturer in May 2018, after having spent almost 8 years in a small bubble called Cambridge, where I was a fellow of Clare College, conducted postdoctoral work at the Department of Engineering, and obtained my PhD at the Department of Zoology. My first degree is in Biomimetics (I kid you not), and comes from the City University of Applied Sciences in Bremen,
I consider myself lucky to work in my dream job, with a group of wonderful and inspiring people. My research themes all have in common that… the principal underlying question can be explained to a 7-year old! Questions that interest me lie exclusively at the intersection between physics, engineering and biology, with the occasional leaning to one side or another. Broadly speaking, I use methodological approaches from physical sciences and engineering to study questions of relevance in biology.
It is important to me that my group’s research holds up to the highest standards, but does so in a friendly, collaborative and supportive way. We work together, not only in our group, but in our Department, the College, and in an international community. I firmly believe that science should be open, and my group hence makes an effort to make the results of our work available to whoever might be interested or benefit from them.
I joined the Department as a PhD student in October 2018 after having completed my Bachelor’s degree in Biomimetics at City University of Applied Sciences in Bremen, Germany. Two years ago, I spent one semester abroad in Cambridge (Department of Zoology), where three momentous events took place:
First, I was introduced to scientific work and learned how it feels to fail and … fail again, and then, … perhaps succeed, but more probably fail another time first. In short, I had a very hands-on experience in what it means to practise science.
Second, I encountered the wonderful world of insect biomechanics as I worked on the cutting mechanics of leaf-cutter ants. Insects have mastered all kinds of challenges including flying, diving, cutting, piercing surfaces, and even farming. I am interested in studying the behavioural ecology of leaf-cutter ants by understanding the biomechanical determinants of successful herbivory.
Third, I experienced the benefits of a friendly and supportive group, highlighting the importance of collaboration and scepticism in science. I appreciate being a part of the scientific community, and maintaining and proclaiming the scientific method.
I have always been fascinated by the rules of physics at both the smallest and the most gigantic scale. This interest drove me to pursue a bachelor degree in engineering at the University of Liège, Belgium. There, I also obtained a masters degree in physics engineering, focusing on fluid mechanics, microfluidics and physics modelling.
Have you ever wondered how tiny insects manage to carry items multiple times their own body weight, while walking upside-down on smooth surfaces?
I discovered that the forces and rules I cherished most governed the way evolution shaped living organisms when I was first introduced to biomechanics during my master’s thesis at the University of Cambridge. My subject of interest was the rheology of samples made up of the tiny footprints that are left behind by most insects. Indeed, the combination between strong adhesion and efficient locomotion can not be comprehended, and possibly replicated, without extensive knowledge of the role of these secretions.
This research and the fascinating mysteries that lie in insect adhesion convinced me to start a PhD in the Evolutionary Biomechanics Workgroup, investigating how insects manage to run with sticky feet.
I intend to make use of my multiphysics background, my fascination and interest for the subject to help solving a still very mysterious phenomenon. My engineering skills will hopefully help to one day create bio-inspired adhesives which replicate the performance of the biological “originals”.
My research is on complex interfaces, a meeting point between physics, chemistry, materials science and engineering. Before joining Imperial in December 2018, I was in Cambridge pursuing a MEng in Electrical Engineering and Information Sciences followed by a PhD in Nanoscience.
In my PhD research I employed different modalities of Atomic Force Microscopy to investigate the mechanisms of adsorption and adhesion of organic foulants to oil-exposed surfaces. This included (i) pinpointing the principal components at play – stiff surface, soft organic molecules in the presence of crude oil – (ii) defining a model system that mimics the real-life one while reducing the chemical complexity introduced by the inhomogeneity of crude oil, (iii) studying adsorption to surfaces in the absence and presence of liquid, and (iv) exploring mitigating strategies to target the effects of the surface roughness and chemistry, and of the liquid-solid interface on adhesion.
The fascination with understanding the contact mechanics interactions at play in complex interfaces and at different scales, developed during my PhD, led me to my current post researching insect adhesion. All insects secrete a contact-mediating liquid from their viscoelastic pads, forming a stiff surface/secretion/insect pad interface upon adhesion. The function of this secretion however remains unclear, and I am exploring its role further by conducting experimental and theoretical work involving both solid and fluid mechanics. So, how do insects run with sticky feet?
Biological systems such as insects are a fascinating example that render themselves both as a way to expand our existing understanding of adhesion (how does “wet” adhesion differ from well-studied dry adhesion?) and a way to study a natural system with impressive performance, to then attempt to mimic its function. Having moved from an applied field to more fundamental research, and from a large scale to single molecules, I find that the application of the contact mechanics theory to biological systems is an intriguing area of research that combines my scientific knowledge and interests.
More than anything, I love developing new technologies and tools that help us to better understand the world around us. Because I am equally passionate about natural sciences as well as the applicability of engineering, I completed my bachelor’s degree in Biomimetics at the City University of Applied Sciences in Bremen. In October 2018, I began studying Human and Biological Robotics at Imperial College as an ideal combination of these interests.
I am especially fascinated by the emerging properties of swarming intelligence we can find in nature. In large groups of individuals, whether humans, birds, or arthropods, we find a finite set of simple interaction rules. These lead to a behaviour of the group which can be far more complex than the sum of its parts. The underlying rules can be incredibly hard to identify by traditional means, which is why I aim to employ machine learning and computer vision algorithms to automate the identification of individuals and their task distribution.
Whenever I am not trying to decipher the rulebook of leafcutter ants, I design and build biologically inspired autonomous aerial and underwater vehicles.
Co-supervised by Professor Anil Anthony Bharath
I joined the Evolutionary Biomechanics Group as a postdoctoral researcher in October 2020. I am investigating how insect herbivores cut their food, and the metabolic cost of doing so. My main study system are leaf-cutter ants (Atta genus). Although these ants are instantly recognisable for their characteristic behaviour of cutting leaf discs and carrying them back to their nest, they do not feed on the leaves themselves. Instead, they carefully cultivate and consume a fungus “farm” that grows on the leaf fragments. Thus, the ability to provide a steady supply of plant material is key to the survival of these ants and has strongly influenced their behaviour and morphology. How do ants cut materials? How do they alter their strategy to deal with clearly defined changes in material properties? Do other insect herbivores use similar mechanisms for cutting? I aim to address these questions and deepen our understanding on plant-herbivore interactions.
Prior to joining Imperial, I obtained my PhD from the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge. Under the supervision of Dr. Walter Federle, I investigated how different plants and animals achieve adhesion in wet environments. As many of us know, standard sticky tapes are useless on a wet or underwater surface, yet many plants and animals manage to stick in wet conditions, sometimes in extremely challenging environments. How do they achieve this? I identified several adaptations and mechanisms in the three biological systems that I investigated (aquatic insect larvae, limpets, and pitcher plants), ranging from specialised attachment structures to glue-like secretions. During my PhD, I was constantly in awe of the complexity and efficiency of biological systems, and I am excited to continue my exploration of the living world at Imperial.
Outside of research, I enjoy photography, travelling, and science communication.
A love of nature and being outside first brought me to biology, as I developed a passion for trying to understand the living world. I became particularly interested in how organisms interact to create complex dynamics, such as schools of fish or flocks of birds, leading to a fascination with ant colonies. I completed a Ph.D. in Entomology at Pennsylvania State University where I studied ‘zombie ants’, which are ants manipulated by a fungal parasite to leave the nest and die in a place advantageous for fungal transmission. At Imperial, I am excited to be studying a different fungal/ant system of the leaf-cutter ants. I plan to investigate how the biomechanical and energetic constraints of cutting leaves influence ant foraging behavior and colony structure. Leaf-cutter ants need to exploit leaves of various toughness, and their ability to cut different leaves is dependent on sending out appropriately sized workers. Ant colonies must coordinate this without centralized control, while also buffering the large amount of energy required to cut and transport leaves. Broadly, my research intends to uncover some of the incredible innovations that help social insects maintain stable nests of thousands of individuals.
I am currently a visiting postdoc, coming from the Miller Lab at the University of Florida. My research background is in animal behaviour and evolutionary ecology. Specifically, I’m interested in why some individuals are so much more reproductively successful than others. Prior to my postdoc. I completed a PhD in Animal Behaviour at the University of St Andrews, during which I investigated the phenomenon of reproductive failure in insects.
Most recently, I’ve been interested in the forces and mechanical constraints which act on insect cuticle and insect weapons. Whilst most people think of the antlers of elk and the tusks of elephants at the mention of animal weapons, insects of many species also invest in weapons and contest behaviour to access females and maximise their chances of mating. The leaf-footed bug taxa contains species with some highly enlarged and elaborate hind leg weapons. However these bugs are also capable of voluntarily shedding these limbs (a behaviour known as autotomy) when caught by a predator or trapped during the moulting process. During my time here at Imperial, I’m hoping to better understand the biomechanics of this limb loss behaviour and how these insects can reconcile the challenges of combining the mechanical strength needed for locomotion with the ability to drop their limb when under threat.
Co-supervised by Dr. Christine Miller