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Weevil genius: Insect inspires stronger, more flexible materials

October 10, 2019

We humans like to think we invent things, but in a lot of cases, nature did it first.

It so happens that for materials scientists and engineers looking to develop strong, flexible complex materials, acorn weevils (specifically Curculio linnaeus, 1758) — small beetles with extra-long curved snouts — developed the blueprint millions of years ago. 

Now, a team of Arizona State University engineers and entomologists has uncovered a key from nature that could help make our material world better. Their findings were recently published in several life sciences and engineering journals, including Advanced Materials.

What’s the buzz around bugs?

This the first time Nik Chawla, a professor of materials science and engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU, has used insects as inspiration for his research; metal-based composite materials are more along the lines of his expertise.

It wasn’t until Chawla crossed paths with Michael “Andrew” Jansen, a recent doctoral graduate who has long been investigating insects, that weevils came onto his radar.

Jansen studied insect taxonomy and biomechanics in the ASU School of Life Sciences, where he was a member of Professor Nico Franz's lab of insect systematics and evolution since he began his graduate studies in 2012. His dissertation research explored weevil feeding behavior and biomechanics, or how insects use their bodies to navigate the laws of physics.

Long before his dissertation was complete, a photo of weevil behavior in a scientific journal article drove Jansen to delve into a brain teaser in bug biomechanics: How does a weevil with a strongly curved snout drill a perfectly straight hole in a hard acorn?

RELATED: Entomologist couple donates world-class insect collection to ASU

Published research didn’t yet have an answer, so Jansen decided to take a closer look at the unique structure of the acorn weevil’s long snout, scientifically known as a rostrum.

Because weevil snouts are very bendy, he assumed they must be rubbery, but they’re not. When Jansen took a closer, microscopic look at the cuticle (the hardened part of the exoskeleton) of a weevil’s snout, he saw it resembled fiberglass or carbon fiber.

It was Jansen’s idea to approach Chawla about studying this mysteriously strong and flexible organic structure.

“It had this layered structure to it that you really only see in artificial materials,” Jansen said. “So, at that point I thought maybe I should get in touch with someone who’s an expert on that kind of stuff, and Dr. Chawla happens to have written the book on composites.”

“Nature figured out a long time before we did that having fibers at different angles gives properties that are uniform throughout.”

— Nik Chawla, a professor of materials science and engineering 

Jansen knew it was a risk at that point in his graduate school career to ask a renowned materials scientist if he wanted to look at insect heads, but it paid off.

“When I emailed Nik, I didn’t expect he was going to actually email me back, much less eventually join my committee for my dissertation and get involved in my research,” Jansen said. 

Chawla, Jansen and the rest of their research team — Nico Franz, a professor of entomology and Jansen's doctoral adviser, and Jason Williams, a materials science and engineering assistant research scientist — were glad Jansen reached out. 

Researchers find the bug has a cool feature

Once Jansen learned how to use the 4D Materials Science Center’s testing and imaging tools to collect information about weevil snout structure and properties, the team members made some interesting discoveries about materials and insects.

They found the weevil’s snout is made up of alternating hard and soft layers in a very complex configuration that leads to a strong, flexible structure.

“Nature figured out a long time before we did that having fibers at different angles gives properties that are uniform throughout,” Chawla said. 

The weevil snout’s microstructure alternates between hard and soft layers that are arranged like a helix (like the shape of a DNA strand). It’s a very effective way to achieve a strong and flexible material — one the weevil can bend easily for feeding but be strong enough to drill through a hard acorn shell to lay eggs. However, it’s not a method that has been used in manufactured materials to achieve similar properties, Chawla says.

“The holy grail in a lot of materials is how to make something that is really strong but can also be stretched,” Chawla said. “One of the key things about this work is we’re starting to figure out how to get the best of both worlds.”

Pure aluminum, for example, is very stretchy, but not very strong. Adding substances to aluminum to form composite materials can change these properties. Current practice is to introduce harder particles such as copper or magnesium to pure aluminum to considerably increase its strength, but the resulting composite material loses some of its stretchiness and flexibility. 

But having materials with high marks in both properties is crucial for many critical applications. Airplane materials and highrise building materials, for example, both must be strong but also flexible to deal with turbulence or impacts of earthquakes. 

The researchers' findings on how weevils evolved their flexible and strong snouts could change how humans can manufacture similar materials to help avoid catastrophic structural failures.

“The understanding we got from this work is really to be able to apply this now to man-made engineering structures,” Chawla said. “Insects and nature are a lot smarter than we are.”

Interdisciplinary science worms out new ideas

Often, the most unexpected and scientific of revelations can be found at the crossroads of different disciplines, which is why ASU strives to foster transdisciplinary research as much as possible. 

“It’s where all the interesting stuff is,” Jansen said. “It’s hard to pick up a book on laminate mechanics as a biologist and try to figure it out and apply it to your own research. But those sorts of intersections are where most of the unknowns are in science, and that’s where we’re going to find the most interesting breakthroughs.”

Franz says this type of interdisciplinary research can often yield great rewards.

“We tend to look for other disciplines when we arrive at boundaries within our own,” Franz said, “and there’s promise to go beyond them with insights from a traditionally separate discipline.”

The interdisciplinary field of biomechanics — studying how a plant or animal moves on a physics level — is one such area. It’s a challenging field of study, but “in the end it’s worthwhile because you’re finding things that nobody has ever seen before, or even thought about asking before in a more traditional context,” Jansen said. “It’s really only possible when you have that interdisciplinary angle to see some of these questions or even begin to tackle them.”

Jansen is no stranger to pairing with engineers for his research. He has previously worked with Fulton Schools faculty members Dan AukesHeni Ben Amor and their graduate students on nature-inspired robots and artificial intelligence. But for something as important as his dissertation, Jansen knew ASU was a unique place that would accept such an interdisciplinary project.

“If I had been anywhere other than ASU I don’t think (my dissertation project) would have flown,” Jansen said. “The faculty at ASU were incredibly supportive of a project that was going in a direction where no one could see how it was going to turn out, and they were supportive of me doing interdisciplinary research.”

Biologists engineer new ideas from interdisciplinary science

For biologists, identifying the underlying structural properties of a weevil’s snout has important ramifications for insect research.

“I think the idea of a modified exoskeleton used to adapt to different amounts of force for different types of usage is going to be really common if we look at it a bit more closely,” Jansen said. “If we look at other systems I think we’ll see the exact same type of modifications, or something completely new, but I think it’s more common than we give it credit for — we take the material for granted.”

Franz, Jansen’s doctoral committee chair, says the results were surprising and the research wowed the dissertation committee.

“(Jansen) made large methodological leaps while analyzing his study system in a way that advanced both evolutionary biology and mechanical modeling of the insect cuticle,” Franz said.

A background in entomology wasn’t enough to get the job done. An interdisciplinary collaboration and learning new skills in biomechanics, materials science and even mathematics were key to Jansen’s success.

The recent graduate says he’s most proud of getting his work published in the Journal of Structural Biology, where he outlined the mathematical model he created for his dissertation to describe the mechanics of the acorn weevil’s exoskeleton. This was the fundamental basis for understanding why the weevil’s snout structure led to the strong-but-flexible mechanical behaviors the research team witnessed. 

“I think the more we look at living materials the more we’re going to find completely weird, off-the-wall types of innovations that we could borrow from.”

— doctoral student Michael “Andrew” Jansen

To do so, he took a page from the engineers’ handbook to create simulations of insect behavior from 3D models of the insect. Jansen says biologists often don’t typically measure the material properties of the species they’re studying before they begin plugging them into simulations. He now knows from experience why they don’t (it’s very difficult to do), but accurate measurements are important to show the functions of the exoskeleton cuticle material. 

“Any mechanical engineers or materials scientists would tell you if you give the model the wrong material properties, you’re going to get the wrong results,” Jansen said. “This is something that everyone normally does, but if you look through the biological literature they just ignore a lot of aspects of the cuticle’s behavior, which is a problem.”

He hopes to inspire his fellow biologists to take the time to get their models correct so they provide realistic insights into what the natural world can do.

Jansen thinks his research is just the tip of the weevil’s snout in terms of what scientists and engineers can learn from insect biomechanics. There are approximately 60,000 species of weevil alone, and with more than a million known species of insect and millions more to be discovered, the possibilities are endless.

“Hierarchically structured materials is a bit of an emerging field, especially in living materials,” Jansen said. “I think the more we look at living materials the more we’re going to find completely weird, off-the-wall types of innovations that we could borrow from.”

Top photo: The Curculio glandium acorn weevil is a type of small beetle that uses its long, curved snout to drill holes. An interdisciplinary collaboration between researchers from Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and School of Life Sciences studied Curculio glandium's relative, Curculio linneaus, which led to the discovery of unique properties of weevil snouts that could benefit both engineering and biology. The acorn weevil snout's exoskeleton structure could hold the key to a future of new material structures that are stronger and more flexible than what can be made today.

Monique Clement

Communications specialist , Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

480-727-1958

ASU Law announces new faculty honors


October 10, 2019

A law school is only as strong as its faculty. At the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, students learn from some of the nation’s foremost scholars and innovative legal instructors. They have played an integral role in ASU Law establishing itself as one of the highest ranked public law schools in the nation, a leading center of scholarly exchange with a tradition of exceptional bar passage and quality job-placement rates.

Among the notable faculty members are a distinguished group of honorees, newly listed as named chairs, professors, scholars or fellows, who bring a wealth of experience, diverse backgrounds and groundbreaking research to ASU Law. law professors ASU Law announces new faculty honors with professorship appointments to (from left): Zack Gubler, Linda DeMaine, Robert Miller, Karen Bradshaw and James G. Hodge Jr. Download Full Image

“We are indebted to our generous donors for affording us the opportunity to recruit, retain and recognize the most talented legal minds in the world,” ASU Law Dean Douglas Sylvester said. “Our faculty are as hardworking as they are talented, producing groundbreaking legal research while making incredible contributions to our law school and the surrounding community.”

Among the most recent additions to the list are the Roslyn O. Silver Professor of Law, the Marie Selig Professor of Law and the Mary Sigler Distinguished Research Scholar.

The newest honorific appointments among the ASU Law faculty are:

Willard H. Pedrick Distinguished Research Scholar: Karen Bradshaw

photo of Karen Bradshaw

Karen Bradshaw, Willard H. Pedrick Distinguished Research Scholar

The Pedrick Scholarship is named for Willard H. Pedrick, the founding dean of ASU Law.

Professor Karen Bradshaw teaches environmental law and researches governance of natural resources, with an emphasis on emerging regulatory approaches including certification regimes, public-private partnerships and collaborative settlements. Bradshaw is also a faculty affiliate scholar with the Classical Liberal Institute at New York University School of Law and Senior Sustainability Scientist at the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University. She is an expert on wildfire law and has also written about land development and forest management.

“I am deeply honored by this distinction,” Bradshaw said. “The Pedrick Scholarship affords me additional latitude to pursue interesting research.”

Bradshaw received her JD with honors from the University of Chicago Law School, where she was a Tony Patino Fellow, Olin Fellow and comment editor for the University of Chicago Law Review. She clerked for Judge E. Grady Jolly of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Before joining the ASU Law faculty, Bradshaw was the inaugural Koch-Searle Fellow in Legal Studies at New York University School of Law.

Bradshaw has published more than a dozen articles in law and peer-reviewed journals. She is the author of the forthcoming book “The New Animal Rights: How Uncovering the Biological Origins of Property Can Save America's Wildlife” (University of Chicago Press) and editor of the book “Wildfire: Law & Economics Policy Perspectives” (with Dean Lueck) (Routledge, 2012). She has presented at workshops and conferences at Columbia University, New York University, University of Chicago, Oxford University and Yale University.

Roslyn O. Silver Professor of Law: Linda DeMaine

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Linda Demaine, Roslyn O. Silver Professor of Law

This new professorship honors the Honorable Roslyn O. Silver, a senior judge with the United States District Court for the District of Arizona who graduated from ASU Law in 1971 and teaches at the school. She is the first alumna to have an ASU Law professorship in her name.

The inaugural Roslyn O. Silver Professorship was awarded to Professor Linda Demaine. Demaine’s research and teaching at the law school focuses on issues at the intersection of law and psychology.

After receiving her JD and PhD in psychology, Demaine was a behavioral scientist and policy analyst at RAND, where she worked on projects including the prevalence and content of arbitration clauses in consumer contracts, the law and psychology of deception in defense of national computer systems, the use of the military for domestic civil law enforcement, and government issuance of patents on genes and other modified products of nature. Demaine has held an American Psychological Association Congressional Fellowship, through which she worked with the Senate Judiciary Committee on FBI and Department of Justice oversight, judicial nominations, and legislation. She also has held an American Psychological Association Science Policy Fellowship, working with the CIA’s Behavioral Sciences Unit.

“I’m honored to be the inaugural Roslyn O. Silver Professor of Law,” Demaine said. “With this title, I will strive to embody several of the admirable qualities for which Judge Silver is widely known — her deep-seated compassion, her dedication to fairness, her commitment to mentoring and her ability to bring her dog to work. The law school community and I greatly appreciate Judge Silver’s generous support.”

Marie Selig Professor of Law: Zack Gubler

photo of Zack Gubler

Zack Gubler, Marie Selig Professor of Law

The Marie Selig professorship was established to honor the mother of former Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, who serves as a Distinguished Professor of Sports in America at ASU Law. The inaugural Marie Selig Professorship was awarded to Professor Zachary Gubler, whose research interests lie in the areas of corporate law and financial and securities regulation.

“It is a great privilege to be named the Marie Selig Professor of Law," Gubler said. "This professorship is a moving tribute to Commissioner Selig’s mother, who was an educator, and I commit to do my best to always be deserving of such an honor. The influence that the Selig family’s generosity will have on ASU Law is shaping up to be as great as the influence that Commissioner Selig had on baseball, which of course landed him in the Hall of Fame.”

Gubler joined the ASU law faculty in 2011 after having spent two years at Harvard Law School as a Climenko Fellow. Prior to joining the academy, Gubler served as a law clerk to Judge Richard C. Wesley of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

Peter Kiewit Foundation Professor of Law: James G. Hodge Jr.

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James G. Hodge Jr., Peter Kiewit Foundation Professor of Law

The Nebraska-based Peter Kiewit Foundation, established in 1979, honors philanthropist Peter Kiewit of the Kiewit Corporation, one of the largest construction and engineering companies in North America.

Professor James G. Hodge Jr., who joined ASU Law in 2009, is the director of ASU’s Center for Public Health Law and Policy. Through scholarship, teaching and applied projects, Hodge delves into multiple areas of health law, public health law, global health law, ethics and human rights. Since 2010, he has also served as director of the Western Region Office of the Network for Public Health Law, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Since its inception, the office has assisted lawyers, health officials, practitioners, students and others nationally on over 3,300 claims. 

“I am deeply honored to be named the Peter Kiewit Foundation Professor of Law,” Hodge said. “The foundation has a rich history of funding and overseeing projects and interests for the benefit of communities across the United States. Its interests are at the heart of my own work to improve health across populations through effective laws and policies. When Dean Sylvester notified me of my selection for this professorship, I reflected on the wonderful commitment that ASU Law has made to our collective work in public health law and policy. As we celebrate the 10th anniversary of our Center for Public Health Law and Policy, I am grateful to collaborate with elite faculty and students at ASU Law and nationally, committed, like the foundation, to the role of communities in society.”

Hodge is a prolific scholar, having published more than 200 articles in journals of law, medicine, public health and bioethics; two books in public health law; 25 book chapters; and guest edited four symposium issues in the Journal of Law, Medicine, and Ethics, Jurimetrics and the Annals of Health Law. He is regularly ranked among the top 3% of cited authors in the Social Science Research Network.

Willard H. Pedrick Distinguished Research Scholar: Robert Miller

photo of Robert Miller

Robert Miller, Willard H. Pedrick Distinguished Research Scholar

The Pedrick Scholarship is named for Willard H. Pedrick, the founding dean of ASU Law.

Professor Robert J. Miller joined ASU Law in 2013. His areas of expertise are federal Indian law, American Indians and international law, American Indian economic development, Native American natural resources and civil procedure. He is an enrolled citizen of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe.

"I was surprised and very delighted to hear that I was appointed a Willard H. Pedrick Distinguished Research Scholar by my dean and faculty,” Miller said. “It is especially satisfying to be honored in this fashion by the colleagues that I work with on a daily basis."

Before joining ASU Law, Miller was on the faculty of Lewis & Clark Law School from 1999 to 2013. Prior to his career in academia, he practiced Indian law with Hobbs, Straus, Dean & Walker, and practiced litigation for the Stoel Rives law firm. Following graduation from law school, he clerked for Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Miller’s scholarly works include articles, books and book chapters on a wide array of federal Indian law issues and civil procedure, and he speaks regularly on Indian law issues across the U.S. and in other countries.

He has written "Reservation 'Capitalism:' Economic Development in Indian Country" (Praeger 2012) and "Native America, Discovered and Conquered: Thomas Jefferson, Lewis & Clark, and Manifest Destiny" (Praeger 2006); and has co-authored "Creating Private Sector Economies in Native America: Sustainable Development Through Entrepreneurship" (Cambridge University Press 2019) and "Discovering Indigenous Lands: The Doctrine of Discovery in the English Colonies" (Oxford University Press 2010).

Nicole Almond Anderson

Director of Communications, Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law

480-727-6990