Vassar Today

Making Waves

By Amy Boggs ’07

How do you test your scientific theories about how animals work when the creatures won’t cooperate? Build your own animals. At least that’s what Professor of Biology John Long did. A vertebrate physiologist specializing in biomechanics, Long worked with Nekton Research LLC and Joseph Schumacher ’05 to make the four-finned aquatic robot Madeleine, so named because its hull resembles the French shell cookie. Madeleine helped research the differences between modern and ancient aquatic tetrapods, revealing that modern aquatic tetrapods probably evolved to use only two flippers because using four takes twice as much energy without increasing cruising speed.

Madeleine was built thanks in large part to the Interdisciplinary Robotics Research Laboratory built two years ago with a nearly half-million-dollar grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to further robotics research at Vassar. Long was honored that such a grant would be given to a small undergraduate institution, saying it was a validation of the work that Vassar had been doing. A second NSF grant, this time for one million dollars, was awarded to Long, as well as Chun Wai Liew and Robert Root ’79, both professors at Lafayette College, to continue their work on robotic systems that simulate animals. The NSF must be pleased with the results, as they recently featured Madeleine in their “Science in Motion” video series.

The underwater robot has been garnering attention from more than just the NSF, however. Since Bioinspiration & Biomimetics published Long’s paper “Four Flippers or Two?” (co-authored with Schumacher, Nicholas Livingston, and Mathieu Kemp), the professor’s research has had international online coverage and even led to television interviews with Discovery Channel Canada and an Australian network’s Beyond Tomorrow science program. After 20 years of being a scientist and receiving little attention, Long said he is a bit embarrassed and caught off-guard by all the press, but he does have a theory behind it. “I took a nice underwater picture. Almost every single article about her includes it,” he said. “I don’t mean to say that we didn’t do good science. We did. It’s just that there’s a lot of very good science out there, and what makes some of it newsworthy boils down to things that don’t have much to do with the science, like an image.”

Regardless, Madeleine has proven to be an important scientific aid, and Long hopes that it will further oceanic animal research. “Robots are great for testing your ideas about how animals work, since you’ve got to build it from the ground up,” he said. “If it doesn’t work, then you have to go back to biology and figure out why.” At the recent Annual Meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, Long, Root, and Liew shared the spotlight with five Vassar students and four from Lafayette College. The team presented their work on another robotic system, a tadpole named Tadro, which is part of a larger simulation of early vertebrate evolution.

To read more about Professor Long’s work visit