2022 NSF CAREER Award: Margaret Byron


UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Margaret Byron, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Penn State, earned a five-year, $815,671 NSF CAREER Award for a project titled “Liminal locomotion: Life at the air-water-land interface.” 

What do you want to understand or solve through this project?

Humans are capable of two modes of locomotion: terrestrial (walking, running) and aquatic (swimming). However, some animals are capable of terrestrial, aquatic and aerial locomotion —that is, they can walk, swim and fly. We call this multimodal locomotion. For this project, we are trying to understand the physical and mechanical principles that allow animals to be multimodal. We’re also exploring the tradeoffs that animals have to make in order to do this. For example, if you use your legs primarily to swim, they might be less well-adapted for running. To study these problems, we’re focusing on aquatic insects (backswimmers, water boatmen and diving beetles) that can move using all three modes of locomotion. We will film them with high-speed cameras to measure the speeds and patterns of their motion, and, in the case of swimming, we’ll also look at how the water moves around them. This will give us more information about the forces they generate in order to move around. A parallel goal of this project is to help train graduate students and undergraduate students in both research and outreach. We’ll be partnering with two local nature centers — Shaver’s Creek and Millbrook Marsh — to share the results of our research, and we’ll also start a larger community of graduate students in the mechanical engineering department who are interested in building their skills in public communication and service.

How will advances in this area impact society?

Improving our understanding of multimodal locomotion can help us address key challenges and questions in both biology and engineering. From an evolutionary perspective, we’re curious about how multimodality has emerged in several different groups, and how it compares between those groups. Multimodality is difficult to achieve in engineered robots and vehicles, so we are also hopeful that our results will provide new material for bioinspired engineering design. Our work in establishing a support community for graduate students to develop their skills in public outreach will help them cultivate a lifelong practice of giving back to their communities, which will hopefully persist throughout their careers. I think this last piece is one of the furthest-reaching impacts of the project. Of course, as a native Pennsylvanian, I can also say that our study species (aquatic insects) are often a favorite food of trout — maybe our results can be used to help fly fishermen create more realistic lures! 

Will undergraduate or graduate students contribute to this research? How?

Graduate and undergraduate students are absolutely key to this project. They will collect animals, perform experiments, analyze data and publish our results so that the scientific community can build on them and get new ideas. We are always looking for motivated and passionate students to join the lab! We are also planning to engage with graduate students throughout the mechanical engineering department to support them in their public outreach goals and plans. Students interested in participating should email me at mzb5025@psu.edu for more information.

The NSF CAREER Award not only funds a research project, but it also recognizes the potential of the recipient as a researcher, educator and leader in their field. How do you hope to fulfill that potential? 

I am absolutely honored to receive this kind of investment from the National Science Foundation. This project will be a springboard for my overall career goals, which include engaging deeply with my community, both within and outside of the University. The opportunity to interact with and support students is a big reason why I am passionate about the job of being a professor. There are plenty of opportunities to do research without being an educator, but I chose this path because working with students is, to me, so much more exciting and surprising than anything you could find outside of the university setting. Students are creative and talented in so many unexpected ways, and this is a huge benefit to the overall process of research and discovery. I am looking forward to leading my team through this project, and I hope that it is only the beginning of a long road filled with exciting discoveries in research, opportunities to invest in student mentoring and education and fulfilling ways to give back to the community.


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