A FISH TALE: Once inside, it’s suddenly clear how the Abyss got its name. The dark, windowless room is long, containing a giant black tank, 10 feet in diameter and capable of holding several thousand gallons of water. A single light shines over the tank, illuminating what at first glance appears to be a Tupperware dish containing a circuit board and a tail. Meet Tadro, short for Tadpole Robot, created to mimic the evolution of vertebrates, and to explore the behavior of extinct marine fish. Designed by professor of biology John Long and his “Fish Fellows,” this unusual approach to studying evolution has produced some intriguing and unexpected results, while gaining international attention along the way.
Equipped with a similar body and brain as the fossil fish, Tadro is autonomous, designed to swim through the water using a tail that pushes and steers, while seeking light, which represents food, along the way. Originally created by Adam Lammert for his 2004 senior thesis, Tadro continued to evolve. A year later, another student, Joe Schumacher, worked with Tadro for his senior thesis, and in 2005, the most recent group of six Fish Fellows took over for a continuous in-depth study on the evolution of the five hundred-million-year-old vertebrates. More specifically, they wanted to understand how the stiffness of the fish’s tail affected its swimming ability. Using computer algorithms, the team genetically mated the robot for 10 generations, giving the strongest swimmers the most genes in the mating pool, and throwing in random mutations as well.
Keon Combie ’08 was in charge of modifying the tails, which were made from gelatin derived from collagen and changed as the fish’s tail evolved in stiffness and length. “We were using a totally different design from the original Tadro,” he says. ”In the beginning, it was all about messing up and then trying to fix it.“ This turned into a common theme throughout the project and, according to Long, also the perfect learning tool. ”We’re doing something that hasn’t been done before,“ he explains. ”Failing is tantamount to the process of doing science. I helped them learn to push through it, and to be creative and keep trying new designs. You have to fail your way to success.“
The Fish Fellows sign on for two years in order to fully experience this real-life graduate-level research. The first year is spent as an apprentice and the second as a peer mentor. Each student is chosen by Long, who aims to diversify the group with students studying cog-sci, biology, and neuroscience and behavior. The intent is for each student to work in his or her specialty, whether it’s using genetic algorithms or designing experiments, before teaching these principles to the rest of the group.
After an intense summer of running the Tadro through its paces and recording their findings, the students faced another graduate-level challenge— to publish their findings in a scientific paper. Success came in the form of an article in the Journal of Experimental Biology. ”In the end it was definitely a personal milestone,“ says Kira Irving ’07. ”I was really excited, and this project helped me confirm that I want to keep doing research in grad school.“
”It’s amazing to have this opportunity as an undergrad, and that’s what’s so incredible about Vassar,“ says Virginia Engel ’08, who explains that they were each responsible for writing about different aspects of the research. ”Now if I have to write my own paper some day, I don’t think I’ll be as scared of the process.“
The National Science Foundation backed the project with several grants, which also provided the group with the opportunity to attend two international meetings to discuss their work. At one conference, Combie took to the podium to discuss Tadro with a room full of scientists. ”It’s 20 minutes and you have to make sure everyone understands your project and you have to answer their questions. It’s a big rush,“ he says, and certainly a far cry from the long days spent in the lab brainstorming new ways to attach tails. ”This is such a comfortable environment to get your start as a researcher.“
And what was the outcome of this fish tale? The students concluded that stiffer tails account for improved swimming, though the stiffness only accounts for 40 percent of this improvement. This indicates that other factors come into play, which means it’s back to the lab for more tests. For the next round, however, Tadro returns with a twist—the introduction of a predator. Stay tuned.