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Spotlight

Nicole W. Xu

Bioengineering
Story originally published on Aug 2021
Growing up, I thought I was going to be a doctor.

I remember watching medical documentaries as a 5-year-old and being transfixed by surgical procedures on PBS. I’d watch with one eye open, afraid of what I’d see next, but at the same time not wanting to miss a moment. I’ve always loved things that kept me on my toes, and am drawn to things that make me squeamish.

It was more than the intricate, suspense-inducing biology on display in these medical processes that fascinated me though; I also loved the engineering side that I saw – the prosthetics, imaging tools and technology.

Today, I study biohybrid robot jellyfish – that is, jellyfish composed of both biological and engineered parts. It’s this perfect niche for me, a combination of my love of biology, engineering and things that make me squirm; i.e., squishy (but gorgeous!) creatures from the sea. I was first introduced to this world in a talk given by my PhD advisor, John Dabiri. He compared a jellyfish to a heart – both essentially biological pumps. One of his students at the time was working on making an artificial jellyfish out of heart cells, and given my interest in health and medicine, I thought this was a fascinating parallel.

Taking that concept to the next step, I thought, “Instead of building an artificial jellyfish, how could we integrate a robotic system with an entire animal to control its motion, much like a pacemaker controls a heart? What would that approach show us about how jellyfish swim, and how would this system compare to other robots?” These questions became the focus of my doctoral thesis.

My research has shown that incorporating electronics into live jellyfish can help create more energy-efficient robots because we’re leveraging the animal’s innate capabilities instead of building and powering an entirely engineered robot. We’re very careful to take steps in this work to ensure that we don’t do any damage to the jellyfish in our work.

Using this method, we’ve also enabled more discovery in the biological world. By increasing the rate at which jellyfish pulse, we can increase their swimming speeds up to almost three times at only twice their metabolic costs, which suggests that we can uncover unknown capabilities in nature.

Ultimately, the goal is to send groups of these biohybrid jellyfish out in the ocean to monitor markers of climate change, as an additional tool in conjunction with autonomous underwater vehicles and existing technology.

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