BOZEMAN – From the world’s first airborne insects to today’s bees and moths, nature has spent an estimated 400 million years developing and optimizing the mechanics of fluttering flight. Now a Montana State University researcher is using high tech methods to see how the little flyers can inform about advances in technology.
Cailin Casey, a PhD student in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at MSU’s Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering, studies a modest part of the insect exoskeleton that can be bent with amazing speed and precision to flap wings hundreds of times per second.
This work is reinforced after Casey received a coveted Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation in March. The award comes with a three-year annual scholarship of $ 34,000 plus $ 12,000 to cover educational costs.
“This gives me more freedom to pursue new discoveries as they emerge,” said Casey, adding that the scholarship also frees up time to share their research with K-12 students through various contact programs and opens doors for international study in order to broaden their research experience.
After studying biology and Spanish as a student at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, the jump to an engineering graduate program in Montana has been challenging, especially given the coronavirus pandemic, Casey said.
“She really took the first step,” said Chelsea Heveran, assistant professor of mechanical engineering. “Given the circumstances, their recognition with this community is even more meaningful.”
In Heveran’s laboratory, Casey uses special tools to accurately measure the thickness and stiffness of the wing-driving part of the exoskeleton called the cuticle. In collaboration with Mark Jankauski, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, she enters the data into computer models that are supposed to show how the cuticle bends to generate wing beats. Jankauski received an NSF scholarship of US $ 620,000 last year to study insect flight, potentially developing improved flight systems for drones and other small flying machines.
“One thing that makes Cailin’s research stand out is its integration, where she not only looks at and understands this structure on a microscale, but also creates these mathematical models,” Jankauski said. “I haven’t often seen it put together so holistically. We look forward to working with her. “
Casey said the motivation for her research came from being intrigued by biology as a student researching proteins found in mushrooms. Not only did she want to understand nature, she also wanted to use scientific knowledge to solve problems. The collaboration with Heveran and Jankauski was a good fit, she said.
“I don’t think there are many places where you can study this from so many perspectives,” Casey said. “Some labs may borrow data or work with other researchers to link something together, but I can look at this from start to finish.” She sees this in part as an expression of the MSU’s interdisciplinary research culture, she said.
Jankauski said he looks forward to working with Casey to investigate how evolutionary biology could help adapt insect flight mechanisms for technical applications. By understanding how insects evolved, researchers could figure out which methods evolved over longer periods of time, and therefore could be more sophisticated.
“I really like the fact that I can wear different scientist hats, collect experimental data for a week, and write a different computer code,” said Casey, who also volunteers as a mentor on the Child Advancement Project run by the local nonprofit Thrive . “I enjoy the fact that I have a lot of variety and that I can acquire many different skills.”
“I love her open-mindedness,” Heveran said of Casey, “and how she sees the bigger picture of how biology and engineering can intersect.”