The mechanical engineer, animal enthusiast, and artist shares thoughts on tuna gliding, salamanders in Switzerland, and the joys of being an “interdisciplinary person”
Many in the Catlin community are aware of your accomplishments in robotics, but may not know that you are also actively interested in animals. When did that interest begin?
Before I can even remember. Every summer when I was growing up, my parents and I would go back to Bulgaria to visit other family, and we’d spend a few weeks at the Black Sea. I would spend hours with my snorkel and a plastic bag, trying to catch things and putting them in buckets, looking after them, and then letting them go at the end of the day. And in Montana, where I grew up, we spent a fair amount of time outside, and had a lot of pets: fish, lizards, frogs, a dog. I even had a pet cockroach at one point, leftover from a project of one of my dad’s graduate students. And we always made sure to visit the local aquarium or zoo on family trips. So I’ve always had this interest in and excitement for animals and the natural world.
As soon as I discovered engineering in Middle School through LEGO robotics, I was excited about making little LEGO animal robots. I think I’ve always been a very interdisciplinary person; I try to connect parts of things that I’m excited about or learning about. I’ll say, "Oh, that reminds me of this other thing," and people sometimes look at me funny, but I still find making those seemingly odd connections very valuable.
Did you enter Stanford planning to integrate these interests?
Yes. I thought, I’m interested in animals; I also like to make robots; let’s learn how this combination works. I wanted to spend time at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station in Monterey, because that was one of the reasons I came to Stanford. A research project on tuna biomechanics at the Tuna Research and Conservation Center there looked like a great opportunity to combine my interests. I ended up studying there on three occasions, including aboard a sailing research vessel during the Stanford@SEA program in 2015.
For one project, I was originally looking at the glide path of tuna to find something called the glide ratio, which is basically how good something is at gliding, how far it can go based on how high up it is. The goal was to understand how much energy tuna use in their annual migrations. But while I was doing that, I noticed that while they were gliding, they weren’t moving their tail side to side, but sometimes they would twitch it up and down. And the back of their tail widens out. I thought, "Maybe that’s like the elevators on an airplane that help them pitch up and down." So it was just an observation on the side, but then ended up being a focus of my research.
How does that field work compare to your research at BioRob in Lausanne, Switzerland, where you studied salamander locomotion in a robotics lab?
Over time, I’ve been exploring the different parts of that learning cycle. I like learning about how animals work and what they do, and using an engineering mindset to do that, like the projects I did with the tuna. Then, another side of that loop is applying that biology knowledge to designing robots.
And then continuing that loop: we can make a robot model of something where we can study and try things that we wouldn’t be able to with the real animal. So it’s an interesting cycle, working with animals directly and learning about them, then working with the robot models based on biology research.
There are so many interesting solutions out there in nature to a variety of problems with a variety of different constraints. There’s something about seeing an organism and its relationship to its environment, how it reacts to it and works with it and influences it, that is inspiring and can teach us about making robots to interact with the environment, and also how we as individuals and society interact with the environment.
Many of your projects are collaborative in nature. Why is that dynamic important to you?
Something I’ve grown to appreciate more over time are my great conversations and activities with friends and peers that do completely different things than I do. And that is what Catlin offered as part of the liberal arts education—I was exposed to all sorts of different fields and topics and interests. I learned that interacting with a diverse group of people requires communication and empathy. At Catlin and through college, I learned that—in addition to aptitude and personal inspiration–most things happen best with a diverse group of people working well together.
Junior Mechanical Engineer, Seismic Powered Clothing, 2019-21 (Engineering Intern 2018-19)
Volunteer, Seymour Marine Discovery Center, UC Santa Cruz, 2019-20
Graduated from Stanford University, B.S. in Biomechanical Engineering, 2017
Research Assistant, Stanford University School of Engineering, various projects 2014-2017
Research Assistant, BioRob - École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (Switzerland), 2016
Research Assistant, Tuna Research and Conservation Center - Stanford Hopkins Marine Station, 2014-16
Stanford University Course Development Assistant (Intro to Animal Behavior), 2015
Volunteer, Stanford class project at the San Francisco Zoo, 2014
Co-captain, FIRST Robotics Competition Team 1540 - The Flaming Chickens, 2011-2013
FIRST Dean’s List Winner, 2012