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Robots, Fish, and Undergrads

Courtesy of Vassar College

John Long exudes enthusiasm. As he demonstrates the swimming behavior of robots, made from Tupperware and simple circuits, in the large pool in his laboratory at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, he almost seems to float a few inches off the floor. And naturally, any explanation of whale backbones—another object of his scientific enthusiasms—would be incomplete without toys from his childhood toy chest stored beneath his office desk.

Long's enthusiasm, one senses, is both heartfelt and tactical. There's no denying its authenticity, yet it's also an important teaching tool. It's the glue that holds together a complex career that incorporates a deep commitment to teaching, an innovative research experience for undergraduates, and a serious research program funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the Office of Naval Research. “He does everything that people do at big universities, but with undergraduates, which is even more impressive,” says Marianne Porter, who has been a postdoc in Long's lab for the last 4 years.

A key aspect of Long's approach to pedagogy is treating his undergraduate students as collaborators.

A nautical past

A descendant of whalers and a member of a sailing family, Long has long shared his family’s interest in the ocean. Yet, when a 4th grade teacher in his native Detroit, Michigan, instructed him and his classmates to learn and write about any species, he chose a land mammal instead—an impala—and then he dreamed about being one. “It was wonderful because they can make these great leaps,” he says. It was his first encounter with biomechanics.

After high school, he applied to the Coast Guard Academy, where he planned to pursue a marine science career while engaging his nautical interests. But budget cuts caused the academy to eliminate its marine science major and he left immediately; he spent the rest of his freshman year at Kalamazoo College in Michigan and then transferred to the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine.

This small college, with its flexible curriculum, provided the freedom Long needed to pursue his many interests. He rehabilitated baby seals. He interned at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. Working with Theodore Grand, an anatomist at the National Zoo, Long observed necropsies and learned about joint mechanisms in ostriches. Long made a big impression on Grand, who remains a collaborator. “I felt like I was dealing already with a professional,” Grand says.

Long's undergraduate research experiences led him straight to graduate school in biomechanics, at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. There, he worked with Stephen Wainwright, a biomechanics pioneer. Long intended to study whales, and he even accompanied a more senior graduate student on a whale-focused research trip to Iceland the summer before he started his Ph.D. But because of the many regulations involved in studying marine mammals in the wild, Wainwright encouraged Long to pursue a more practical aquatic subject: bony fish. Focusing on marlin, Long studied the vertebral columns in recently deceased fish and observed the swimming patterns of live fish. He stood out as someone who was particularly interested in discussing science with colleagues, Wainwright says, even when their work didn’t overlap much with his. “It was really fun to go to a [national] meeting with John,” he recalls. “He’s a great organizer of people and ideas.”

Academic choices

CREDIT: John Long
These robots at Vassar College are programmed only to seek light, but their shared goal and physical interactions in the water lead them to automatically organize themselves into a school.

While Long was at Duke, he looked on as a zoology professor was denied tenure due to insufficient grant funding, even though he had published papers and won teaching awards. When Long went on the job market, he considered a range of options. But, he says: “I didn’t want to go to a place where I would lose the degrees of freedom to do the things that I love.”

Coming from a well-known lab in a new and exciting field, Long was hired by Vassar before he had even finished his Ph.D., something he acknowledges would be impossible today. There was a snag however: Margaret Ronsheim, an evolutionary plant ecologist and Long's spouse, was also on the job market. Vassar offered her a visiting faculty appointment, but it was only for 2 years. With the help of Vassar’s dean, they worked out a split position—each was officially working half-time—that would allow each of them to earn tenure independently, which they both eventually did.

Ronsheim remains officially half-time, though sometimes she picks up a full-time load. The arrangement is unique at Vassar, Long says. “It’s wonderful that [the biology department] was willing to do it,” he says. “We feel very fortunate.”

A successful interdisciplinary research program

At first, Long built robots that mimicked certain features of biological systems as a means of understanding the evolution of vertebral columns. Then, he began to talk with Kenneth Livingston, a Vassar colleague in psychology who shares an interest in robotics.

CREDIT: Sarah Webb
John Long and Kenneth Livingston—and a friend

In the 1980s, Livingston and a small group of faculty members founded the nation's first undergraduate degree program in cognitive science. In 2002, Long and Livingston started co-teaching a course called “Perception and Action.” Their students learned to program robots as tools for understanding perception, sensation, and behavior. The behavior part was new: Traditional sensation and perception courses focus on input without examining output, Livingston says. Long and Livingston also began to supervise a robot challenge. The format varies, but this year, teams of undergraduates will propose robot-based independent study projects aimed at solving a problem. Then they will build a robot to address their problem.

The two colleagues continue to collaborate in the classroom and in the research laboratory. Their research program resembles what you might find at a research institution, except that “the epicenter of all our activities is undergraduates,” Long says. Funded by NSF, DARPA, and the Office of Naval Research, members of the lab are studying fish schooling behavior and the vertebral columns in sharks and bony fish. They’re also building underwater robots that enhance sonar with sensing systems similar to those in sharks and sea turtles.

A key aspect of Long's approach to pedagogy is treating his undergraduate students as collaborators. But with undergraduates, continuity can be a challenge. Students enter young and inexperienced and by the time they're well trained, it's time for them to move along.

CREDIT: Evan Abramson
John Long in teaching mode

Over the years, Long and Livingston have addressed this problem by building a program that they call “Fish Fellows.” Students sign on to work in the group for 2 years. Second-year fellows mentor first-year fellows. Grant funding has allowed Long to hire Porter as a postdoc and Nick Livingston, a master's degree level engineer (and Ken’s son) to run the day-to-day operations of the Fish Fellows program and the robotics laboratory.

But on balance, Long sees working with undergraduate students, instead of graduate students and postdocs, as an advantage: “Because their lives aren’t dependent on it if a project fails, we can do all kinds of crazy stuff here. So I can take many more risks as a researcher here than ... if I were at a university,” he says.

Renaissance man

As Vassar's cognitive science program grew, Long picked up a half-time appointment in that department, so now he works full-time. He teaches 5 courses per year—a standard load at Vassar—and serves as chair of the biology department. Recently he added another feather to his cap, writing a popular book, Darwin’s Devices, about using robotics to study evolution.

Of the more than 30 graduate students that Wainwright directly mentored in his career at Duke, “very few have done as much or as many different kinds of things,” he says. “He got in [at Vassar] and simply saw opportunities that he was willing to jump right into, and that’s very much John Long.”

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