The vision goals and thematic basis of the CiBER-IGERT program involve biologically-inspired engineering and engineering-inspired biology in association with Berkeley’s Center for interdisciplinary Biological-inspiration in Education and Research (CiBER) .

Vision, Goals, and Thematic Basis

“Human ingenuity may make various inventions, but it will never devise any inventions more beautiful, nor more simple, nor more to the purpose than Nature does; because in her inventions nothing is wanting and nothing is superfluous.” (da Vinci, 15th century)

Nowhere are inventions more evidently lacking than in moving systems. Although Nature is far from da Vinci’s notion of perfection, no human-engineered flight system can out-maneuver a hummingbird, no actuator can match the performance of muscle, no adhesive can stick like a gecko’s foot, and no robotic limb can match the function of our own arms and legs. Why not? In the previous century, human technologies tended to be large, flat, stiff, metallic structures with right angles that used rolling devices and had few sensors and actuators [1]. In contrast living machines tend to be small, curved, and compliant composite structures with many appendages, sensors and actuators. Moreover, these biological motion systems evolve and operate in spatially complex and temporally varying natural environments. The design of human-made devices is now being transformed by principles learned in studies of biological devices, and we are entering an age of innovation inspired by nature. Nature can now instruct engineers in unexpected ways to design novel materials, devices and algorithms and develop new manufacturing processes, because these emerging technologies capture more and more of the complex features of life. A recent report [2] from the National Academies of Sciences entitled “Inspired by Biology: From Molecules to Materials to Machines” concludes that biomimicry and bioinspiration are two strategies that have the potential to improve the well being of citizens and the nation’s economic competitiveness. Recent international conferences (e.g., Biological Approaches for Engineering at Univ. of Southampton, UK) and new journals (e.g., Bioinspiration & Biomimetics – Learning from Nature) exemplify the collaborative efforts between biologists and engineers that signal the future of material and system design. Our goal is to use the study of motion systems as a vehicle for biology and engineering students to develop the necessary skills for collaborating effectively in interdisciplinary research at the cutting edge of the emerging field of bio-inspiration.

A major theme of our training program is to educate students how to learn from nature. Nature provides useful hints of what is possible, including design ideas that may have escaped an engineer’s consideration. When most effective, biologically inspired designs often supersede nature by integrating the principles and analogies from biology with the best of human engineering [3]. Given the unique process of biological evolution and its associated constraints, identifying, quantifying and communicating these design ideas is a challenge. Our trainees will be trained to be aware of the intrinsic limits to biological design through participation in interdisciplinary biomechanical research and design of bio-inspired devices. Integrative biologists providing bio-inspired design ideas to engineers need not only understand principles of structure and function, but also must use their knowledge of evolution, behavior and the environment to extract potentially valuable design ideas. Engineers should not blindly copy these design ideas. In many cases, engineers have developed approaches, tools, devices and materials far superior to those in nature. Biologists must remind engineers that biological evolution works on the “just good enough” or sufficiency principle. Organisms are not optimally designed and natural selection is not engineering. Our trainees will understand why da Vinci’s view of nature held by many today is actually incorrect [4]. Engineers have final goals, whereas biological evolution does not. Organisms engage in a multitude of tasks, whereas in engineering, executing fewer tasks will do. As a result, “trade-offs” are the rule, severe constraints are pervasive and global optimality is rare in biological systems [5]. Biological evolution works more as a tinkerer than an engineer [6]. Tinkerers never really know what they will produce and use everything at their disposal to make something workable for present needs. Organisms are not optimal products of engineering, but “a patchwork of odd sets pieced together when and where opportunities arose” [6].

Biologically-inspired engineering. Our IGERT directly addresses the approaches and processes necessary to learn most effectively from nature. IGERT Trainees from engineering disciplines will be trained to build a successful integrative program in which they routinely seek advice from biologists. IGERT engineering trainees will know the questions that must be answered for biological inspiration to be most effective. These trainees will understand the fundamental biological motivation that underlies the biologists’ choice of the species selected for inspiration. The exceptional performance of the organism’s materials, mechanics or control systems must be defined, quantified and defended. IGERT engineering trainees will learn how to use scaling and similarity theory to identify general principles of function, while at the same time, learn to appreciate the advantages of identifying nature’s extreme designs and key innovations. Trainees will develop an understanding of the conceptual power and limitations of both direct experiments and natural experiments using the comparative method. Most importantly, IGERT engineering trainees will understand the risk of assuming that after millions of years of evolution, the biological solution is necessarily superior or optimal. The fundamental assumption of a near-global optimality remains the prevailing view of many engineers and biologists [5]. However, when our engineering trainees collaborate with our evolutionary biologists, they will find that this assumption is false. Blind copying or strict biomimicry can and has led engineers down the wrong path to unworkable designs. Instead, engineers should be knowingly inspired by nature.And if collaborations are to be sustained, engineers need to know how their discipline can return the favor to advance biology.

Engineering-inspired biologyIGERT biological sciences trainees will know the tools and insights that engineering can provide to answer fundamental biomechanical questions. In addition to the mathematical models, physical insights, measurement, and construction tools of engineering, engineers are trained to ask what is possible based on physical limitations, as well as what is useful. Engineering increasingly offers the opportunity to test hypotheses for biological systems by recapitulating the core functions in engineering models and by comparing behavior with the original study organism.Biologists working with engineers, computer scientists and mathematicians are now discovering general principles of nature from the level of molecules to networks at an ever-increasing pace. A recent report from the NRC of the National Academies of Science entitled Catalyzing Transformative Research selected the question, “What are the engineering principles of life?” as one of the grand challenges for 21st century biology [7]. Fortunately, training grants such as the NSF IGERT have provided the opportunity for biologists to take classes in engineering, to become more familiar with engineering approaches and to work with engineers to solve the problems posed by nature. However, engineering-inspired biology is only in its earliest stages, especially with respect to higher levels of biological organization. Biologists do not routinely seek collaborations with engineers, even though quantitative, simpler, mathematical and physical models could provide stronger testable hypotheses. Biologists are often unaware that effective engineering hypotheses, constructs and methodologies already exist and could better answer their questions. The next step in training the 21st century biologist requires us to move beyond current content, exposure and involvement by providing a deeper understanding of the processes used by engineers. Again, if collaborations are to be sustained, biologists must know how the fundamental principles from biology can advance engineering.

CiBER – Center for interdisciplinary Biological-inspiration in Education and Research. To facilitate the development of mutual and sustained collaborations, UC Berkeley has created a new center that promotes interdisciplinary research and education by moving from exposure and content to a deeper understanding of the processes and approaches used in both biology and engineering. CiBER will be the home of the proposed IGERT. The CiBER IGERT’s core objectives are to: 1) transfer, adapt and innovate methods from engineering to facilitate discovery of general principles in biomechanics, 2) learn how to provide effective biological inspiration to enhance novel design in engineering, and 3) train the next generation of biologists and engineers to collaborate in mutually beneficial relationships.

The creation of CiBER grew out of the stark realization that many successful NSF, ONR, DARPA and DOE research programs that included biologists and engineers did not train their own students to be leaders of future interdisciplinary teams. The collaborations exposed students to biological and engineering content, allowed them to participate in biological experiments and to observe the design of engineering devices, but did not further evolve because they lacked an understanding of each discipline’s processes that lead to mutually beneficial relationships. Collaborations broke down because one group often felt they were simply serving the other without the necessary reciprocation that leads to advancement in their own field. Moreover, many of us discovered that even the best video conferencing, student exchange and annual meetings were no substitute for a common center or laboratory where biologists and engineers could work and learn side-by-side. At CiBER, we intend to learn from these experiences and will provide just such a physical home.

References Cited

  1. Vogel, S. (1998). Cats’ Paws and Catapults: Mechanical Worlds of Nature and People. W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 382 pps. View online.
  2. Committee on Biomolecular Materials and Processes, National Research Council. (2008). Inspired by Biology: From Molecules to Materials to Machines. 2008. National Academies Press, Washington, DC, 118 pps. View online.
  3. Full, R.J. (2001). Using Biological Inspiration to Build Artificial Life That Locomotes. In: Evolutionary Robotics From Intelligent Robotics to Artificial Life, International Symposium, Tokyo, Japan, Proceedings. Lecture Notes in Computer Science. (ed. Gomi) Springer-Verlag Berlin, pps. 110-120.
  4. Benyus, J.M. (1997). Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. William Morrow. 288 pps. View online.
  5. Dudley, R., Gans, C. (1991). A critique of symmorphosis and optimality models in physiology. Physiological Zoology 64(33): 627-637.
  6. Jacob, F. (1997). Evolution and tinkering. Science 196(4295): 1161–1166. View online.
  7. Committee on Defining and Advancing the Conceptual Basis of Biological Sciences in the 21st Century, National Research Council. (2008). The Role of Theory in Advancing 21st Century Biology – Catalyzing Transformative Research. National Academies Press, Washington, DC, 196 pps. View online.


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