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Professor awarded Ig Nobel Prize for ‘necrobotic’ spiders

Faith Zhang / Thresher Daniel Preston, right, and his team were recently awarded an Ig Nobel Prize, a satirical award celebrating research achievements in science, medicine and technology for their work with “necrobotic” spider corpses.

By Keegan Leibrock     9/26/23 11:38pm

Daniel Preston, right, and his team were recently awarded an Ig Nobel Prize, a satirical award celebrating research achievements in science, medicine and technology for their work with “necrobotic” spider corpses. 

Daniel Preston, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and his team have been awarded an Ig Nobel Prize for their work in “necrobotic” spiders. The satirical award annually celebrates ten research achievements in science, medicine and technology that “make people laugh, then think.”

Preston’s research concerns “necrobotic” spider corpses that grip small objects by injecting them with hydraulic fluid through hypodermic needles, causing their legs to curl inward. Preston won the award along with postdoctoral researcher Anoop Rajappan and graduate students Faye Yap, Trevor Shimokusu and Zhen Liu.

Preston said he was surprised when he and his team won the award.

“We follow the Ig Nobel Prizes every year because they highlight some really interesting ideas and creative work,” Preston said. “We never thought that we would win one … When we found out that we won, we were all ecstatic. We were super excited to realize that we were going to receive this honor.”

Yap, a graduate student who helped lead the project, said the impetus behind the research came from observing a deceased spider lying in the corner of their lab.

“One day, we saw a dead, curled-up spider in the corner of our lab, and we were curious as to why the spider’s legs were curled up onto itself,” Yap, who is studying mechanical engineering, said. “We did a quick search online and found that spiders actually do not have antagonistic muscle pairs — instead, they only have flexor muscles that curl their legs inward towards their body. They rely on hydraulic pressure to extend their legs outward.” 

Yap said that this observation inspired her and Preston to work with spiders as organic materials for natural gripping devices.

“At the time, we thought it was really interesting,” Yap said. “Our lab also works with nontraditional materials for soft, fluid actuation devices, so we began trying to think of how we could use this inanimate spider as a gripper itself.”

Preston said the next step was to procure spiders from an online provider and activate the gripping devices via a hydraulically operated system.

“We decided that we were interested in seeing whether we could tap into this hydraulic actuation mechanism that spiders use. We sourced some spiders online from a biological supply company, and … looked up in the literature how to ethically euthanize them,” Preston said. “Once we had the deceased spiders, we used those as the source material for the necrobotic gripper by simply attaching the hypodermic needle to the spider’s main body section and then sealing it hermetically with a drop of superglue.”

Preston’s research gained national recognition, including coverage by major news outlets, Twitter fame and a late-night segment on the Stephen Colbert show. Preston said although he expected some attention for the research paper, he was surprised by the amount of attention it got.

“When the paper first came out, we thought we might get some reactions online just because it’s a little bit unconventional,” Preston said. “We were definitely surprised by just how much attention it got.” 

Yap said she was initially worried about the amount of attention the article was getting but was eventually comforted by the researchers’ responses.

“In the beginning, it was a little bit stressful seeing so many of the tweets online and stuff like that,” Yap said. “After that, we kind of saw a lot of people were also really supportive of the work, so that made me really excited. There were a lot of researchers tweeting about it [who] were really excited about the concept, so that was really nice.”

Moving forward, Preston said that his lab would focus on increasing spider usability duration along with researching activation for individual legs on a given spider using similar hydraulic techniques.

“Our lab is interested in continuing to look at necrobotics in terms of prolonging the usability of the organic grippers in real-world applications, maybe by preventing dehydration,” Preston said. “We’re also excited about studying of active locomotion [of deceased spiders], so individually addressing each of the legs to cause them to walk and see how that process works.”

Yap advised aspiring researchers to think originally and observe their surroundings.

“We did not expect to be working on this project, so one thing I would say [to aspiring researchers] is to be observant of your surroundings and always be interested and curious,” Yap said. “It really started with curiosity — why does this violate simple things that we understand, that we usually take for granted? I would say to just think more outside the box with your ideas.”

Preston agreed with Yap’s advice, advising researchers to be ambitious with their ideas.

“Be open to new things and search for new opportunities,” Preston said. “Being creative is really important and enables [the development of] new technologies, some of which will take off and change the way that we live, some of which might not … hopefully, some will aggregate [and] will lead to big advances for researchers and for humanity.”

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