Delighted to bring you this interview with David L. Hu, PhD, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Biology, Adjunct Professor of Physics. Recipient of Ig Nobel Prize in Physics, Georgia Institute of Technology. Author of How to Walk on Water and Climb up Walls: Animal Movement and the Robots of the Future (Princeton,2018)
What is your background briefly?
When I was a kid I loved going to the zoo and watching animals. When I was mistakenly admitted to MIT, I learned that the tools of engineering could be a useful to understand the amazing things that animals do. I combined this with a PhD in mathematics and now I run my own laboratory as a professor in both mechanical engineering and biology at Georgia Tech. Our lab studies the design of animals and builds devices based on the things we learn.
Does it seem like a logical background to what you do now?
Yes, I’m a biologist at heart but I study biology through the lenses of engineering, mathematics and physics. It’s critical that I use these tools to answer biological questions like: How do animals move, pee, eat, or smell? Those are all scenarios that that involve animals moving matter around them.
1 min pitch for what you are doing now?
I’m studying swarms of insect larvae that can eat an entire pizza in less than two hours. We throw away 20% of all the food we buy, and much of that goes into landfills and contaminates our drinking water. One solution is to feed the waste to bins of insects. We are studying how these insects swarm around food to eat it. Lots of the flows we see look like whirlpools or flows you would see in water, except instead of water molecules, it’s individual insects. We hope our studies lead to better ways to feed and raise them.
What has the response to your book been, anything you would like to have expanded on or changed?
It’s been great. My book was featured in the New York Times and named One of Inverse’s Best Science Books of 2018. It’s been translated into Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. This year, I’ve been to Italy, Japan, France, Norway, Beirut, and all over the USA to give book lectures and signings at schools and science museums. I’m especially happy to see all the kids in the audience. It would be great to have a website or some forum that kids can answer questions and post their responses to the book.
Your TEDx talk (that we included in the review) was great, do you still have people complaining that your experiments and research are without value OR do people now better understand their value?
Well, let’s just say that if I’m featured as the most wasteful scientist in the USA or mentioned on Fox and Friends again, I won’t be surprised. I think it’s great that people are asking if research is a waste of money or not. A scientist is always asking herself the same question: am I going to get good results out of this? Is this a good use of taxpayer money? I think we should encourage the dialogue. For us scientists, it gives us a chance to defend our work—which I love to do, especially to audiences that I don’t normally reach. More of that in my essay, “Confessions of a wasteful scientist” on Scientific American:
If you could commission even more animal research, which areas would you recommend that the world / your PhD students study?
I’m interested in soft body parts like the cat’s tongue and the elephant trunk. These are appendages that are composed of only muscle and as a result they are super flexible. We are just starting to understand how these appendages can have a sensitive sense of touch yet be very strong when needed. There is a lot of interest in robots that are made of soft part to do tasks around the home like combing your hair or brushing your teeth.
— David L. Hu (@drdavidhu) May 23, 2018
What is next for you?
I’m keen on promoting the book worldwide, and helping science teachers use the material in their classes. I think studying animals is a great introduction to engineering, and lots of schools are looking for ways to teach engineering earlier.
As habitat is being damaged, do you find yourself also becoming more involved in conservation issues to ensure there is still time to find and study all the cool and interesting animals / insects etc out there?
Yes, this is very important. I perform much of my research at zoos and museums, which get many of their animals and specimens from nature. By using these collections, we help justify their existence. If animals are not seen as sources of knowledge, such collections might disappear forever.
I am starting a project with the Chengdu Panda Research Base in China. We are studying panda climbing in order to help identify pandas that are most fit for release back to the wild. Surviving the wild is like training a Navy SEAL and we are looking for the strongest panda for the job, but currently there is no way to measure that. I hope this project will help increase panda numbers in the wild.
How can people find out more about you & your work?
Science Friday has recorded a number of great videos about my research. They are great starting points for talking about the scientific topics I’ve been studying. I’m also happy to come give a book lecture at a local museum.
On a daily basis, I’m posting my latest research results using the social media service, twitter and my username is @drdavidhu. I’m always happy to hear about your latest animal story. Twitter is a great way you can see all the roboticists, physicists, and biologists talking about their latest findings.
Anything else you’d like to add / we should have asked?
One thing I truly believe is that anyone can be a scientist. It just takes an interest in asking questions, and an open mind for the amazing array of answers that you might uncover. We discovered animals urinate for about 21 seconds and cats leave 3 tablespoons of saliva in their fur. The world is full of crazy facts that are waiting for you to discover them.