Development of a robotic manipulation system for Caenorhabditis elegans

Angelica looking in microscope

Students

2020
Engineering and Applied Sciences

Faculty

Wilf Family Term Assistant Professor of Bioengineering

Project Summary

With mentors Dr. Christopher Fang-Yen and Anthony Fouad, I was tasked to design and assemble components for a robot that would aid scientists using C. elegans (a microscopic roundworm model organism) in their research laboratories. My goal was to contribute meaningfully and inventively to the robot’s mechanical and electrical infrastructure by the end of the program.

In truth, I had never built a robot before. As you can imagine, a project of this caliber seemed incredibly daunting, but also delightfully challenging; indeed, I was learning a couple of new engineering skills every other week. These weeks were often split between working with hardware, assembling electronics, and documenting progress on other ongoing neuroscience experiments. While one week I would be scouring the lab for screws, nuts, and washers needed to assemble some motors, the next would be spent creating a model of the robot on a design program. Another week could then be designated to planning genetic crosses and writing publication segments, while yet another could be purely dedicated to building circuit boards. When all at once I began stepping into roles meant for mechanical, electrical and bioengineering interns, I gleefully found myself morphing into a sort of robot-building jack-of-all-trades.

Beyond the tangible techniques, I learned how to problem-solve, take initiative and plan my own workdays in the lab. After having a day’s task assigned simply as “build the heating coil,” I realized what it truly meant to research, design, and build a mechanical piece almost from scratch – something I have yet to truly experience in my regular coursework. After spending hours wiring and re-wiring circuits -- switching, changing, fiddling, and meticulously analyzing wires and diagrams to find the source of issue (a true needle in a haystack experience!), I understood the value of paying attention to detail – as well as the very real costs of time, effort, and resources that come along with failing to do so.

While this sort of failing I did often, I have more than internalized the idea of failing first to get to success. All in all, I believe I gained so much by means of skills, attitude and teamwork experience, despite the frustrations and iterations that inevitably come with any project of this nature. Working with my mentors to make our ideas a reality and learning about the nitty-gritty of “the engineering process” all the while were educational experiences I know will be extremely valuable to me in my future endeavors. In fact, I hardly remember the frustrations and iterations at all – just the hard work, and the renewed confidence in my ability to take on a challenge.