Deux ex Biomachina: Adam Summers Joins Real Scientists

Understanding how different parts of animals work, and applying mathematics and engineering principles to them is the work of our next Real Scientists curator, Dr Adam Summer of the Friday Harbor Labs, University of Washington (@fishguy_FHL). Taking inspiration from nature for new materials and devices, understanding them at a deeper scientific level is the next big thing in science and Adam is part of this. How do you build an animal? How does it work? Once nature had come up with certain kinds of body plans for animals, it increased the variety of colours, species, forms. How did this happen? The information lies mostly in the genetic code, which tells a tale of gene duplication, swapping, mutagenesis and so on. Through billions of years, we evolved tetrapods (four limbed animals), fishes with different kinds of fins and jaws, crustacea with movable armour, insects of all kinds; animals of extraordinary variety in shape, size, colours, but largely classifiable into certain categories.  Humans have only just begun to mimic these forms: for robotics, for making new materials, and we can’t wait to hear Adam talk about how he does this over the next week.  We gave Adam our usual questions and here he is, in his own words.


I tried a lot of different jobs before realizing that biologist was a career possibility. At that point, in my late 20’s, I took my first biology courses and got a master’s and a Ph.D.. There were several big motivators – I really like the organismal biologists that I met. I adore being able to ask questions that interest me. And, my work forces me to be a better and better natural historian since that is the engine of my inspiration.


As a late-comer to biology I quickly realized that biomechanics was a good fit for my undergraduate training and my interest in natural history. Applying simple math and engineering to living systems is endlessly fascinating. In 20 years I have never wondered for a moment whether there were more good questions to ask. It is abundantly clear that ideas are not the shortage, time and hard work are the limiting factors.


I am a comparative biomechanist. I have applied the lens of engineering and mathematical modeling to cartilaginous and ray finned fishes, amphibians, reptiles and a few invertebrates. I am very interested in bioinspired materials. Right now I am working on several projects that exploit marine systems as models for materials that could be deployed in a biomedical context.


Blue sky research is stuff that is inherently hard to explain to the general public, since there is no plausible and pressing link to human health, society or economy. It is vital to recognize that natural history, and in particular a clear understanding of the ecology, systematics and function of organisms in their environment is an engine of inspiration. None of my lab’s work started as applied science, but several projects have led to patents and new technologies that could be exploited commercially. I do not think that all natural historians should be looking for applications, I point this out simply to show the possibilities.


Do you have any interesting external/extracurricular obligations?

This is an interesting phrasing…obligations? Well, being a good citizen as a scientist means participating in the management of science. I have organized the International Congress of Vertebrate Morphology in Barcelona and am currently working on the next congress for the summer of 2016 in Washington, DC. I also am a pilot who lives on a small island. I fly cancer patients off the island for treatment. I am co-parenting a couple of kids and that takes a remarkable amount of time.


Any interesting hobbies you’d like to share?

I prepare skeletons, collect books and fly airplanes. I also build things with wood, plastic and microcontrollers. I have recently been working on some artistic representation of cleared and stained fishes in collaboration with a poet.


How would you describe your ideal day off? (Scientists are people too!)

Fly my spouse and kids off the island for a walk and a meal.



Please welcome Adam Summers/@fishguy_FHL to Real Scientists!


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