Published: June 30, 2020 By

For approximately three months, many researchers in the College of Engineering and Applied Science have been working remotely. Now, they are gradually and safely returning to campus to continue their work in the lab. While away, researchers said they adapted quickly and overcame unique challenges, and as they return, they look forward to claiming a new normal in their labs and moving forward in their research.

Parker Mcdonnell and microscope
Above: Graduate student Parker McDonnell conducts research in the Animal Inspired Movement and Robotics Laboratory. (PC: Glenn Asakawa)
Top: Assistant Professor Kaushik Jayaram and Parker McDonnell work in the lab after returning to campus in June 2020. (PC: Glenn Asakawa)

Assistant Professor Kaushik Jayaram’s research combines biology and robotics to uncover principles of robustness that make animals successful at locomotion in natural environments. He and his lab, the Animal Inspired Movement and Robotics Laboratory, study small animals like cockroaches and how they handle occurrences such as head-on collisions, body deformations and partial or complete amputations to learn how these principles might be successfully integrated in small robots. He and his group are working on expanding the capabilities of these robots by developing novel actuators, sensors and bioinspired appendages.

Graduate student Parker McDonnell works alongside Jayaram. Below, McDonnell shares about their return to research.

How many people are currently back to work in your lab? What’s the general mood about returning?

Two: myself and Professor Jayaram. We are both excited to get back to work on research this summer, especially while things are quiet on campus.

How is your lab restarting research after two months away? What are your priorities now? How have they shifted?

We are in a unique situation since our lab is quite new, and for the most part, the current students are new hires, including myself. Most students weren't planning to arrive until the fall anyway, and for me, I'm lucky that most of my design work can be done remotely; it's only in the last week or so that I've needed to be on campus to do work! 

Our top priority right now is to recreate the cutting-edge solutions in microrobotics from Professor Jayaram's previous research and other current literature in-house, and in addition, to improve these designs using the newly acquired state-of-the-art tools we have at CU Boulder. This will give our new lab the opportunity to build confidence by establishing a baseline for our methodology before we begin to advance the field forward. By the end of the year, we hope to have a novel spider-inspired autonomous crawling robot that can be used to run experiments and demo to our potential collaborators.

Kaushik Jayaram's spiders in his lab
Live spiders housed in aquariums in the Animal Inspired Movement and Robotics Laboratory. When campus closed, graduate student Kristen Such took the spiders home to care for them. 

What changes, postponements or issues did you face in your research?

The biggest issues were centered on receiving orders and communicating with lab members. We had a laser system that was stuck in customs for months due to COVID-19, and we just received it a few days ago. On the communication side of things, Zoom, Slack, and email have been critical for the team to stay in touch and keep progress moving forward. I can't imagine trying to keep in touch during a pandemic without the internet.

As I mentioned previously, a lot of my design work and lab equipment procurement could be done remotely on a computer as no one was working in the lab.

What precautions are you taking to stay safe?

In addition to wearing masks and regularly cleaning surfaces, we are limited to only two people in our lab area. Going forward, it will typically be me in the lab, and Professor Jayaram will stop by from time to time.

What are the biggest challenges as you restart? How will you address them?

We were fortunate enough to already be in a reset state at the end of the semester as old students left and new students joined the lab. COVID-19 isn't causing issues for us now, but if facilities don't open up fully in the fall, we will start to see more of an impact on our work as access to equipment and interaction with team members may become limited. In this scenario, Zoom, Slack and other platforms will be critical in keeping everyone up-to-date. Furthermore, bringing certain lab items home to aid in remote work could be another tactic to speed up research.

Have you noticed any “silver linings” to your time away from campus?

I think everyone agrees, it’s nice being able to make lunch at home every day, rather than sticking something in the microwave at work! Also, it's easy (for me at least) to stay focused on a task at hand, when there isn't as much activity going on around me. Plus, I'm able to take better care of myself during the day, be it going for a quick run before lunch or stepping outside for a few minutes to get some fresh air when I'm feeling overwhelmed.

CU Boulder is in the midst of a phased return to on-campus research and creative work in summer 2020. In this series, CU Engineering researchers share tips, tricks and takeaways as they navigate a new approach to research prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.