INTERDISCIPLINARY RESEARCH AND PROGRAMS
Intellectual inquiry often crosses disciplinary boundaries. Colby’s long-standing dedication to and encouragement of interdisciplinary education allows our faculty and students to incorporate their interests into their research, which can be seen in the stories featured on this page.
DESIGNING ROBUSTLY INTELLIGENT SYNTHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEMS
Through a four-year, $325K National Science Foundation grant, professor of biology Josh Martin, with collaborator at Case Western Reserve University Roger Quinn, are expanding the scale and sophistication of synthetic nervous systems (SNS) that will be implemented to control their six-legged MantisBot–endowing it with online learning and intelligent autonomy. Martin and Quinn believe a structure-math-function approach to computational neural modeling is provably more stable and robust than typical machine learning methods. Their approach has already resulted in several walking models and robots.
To endow a machine with robust intelligence, Martin and Quinn look to the most successful phylum of animals on the planet: Arthropoda (e.g. insects, crustaceans, and spiders). Arthtopods’ intelligence rises from their highly distributed nervous systems, which directly enable them to produce adaptive locomotion and sophisticated decision making.
Research shows that praying mantises are masters at movement and articulation, making them attractive for implementing a bio-inspired design–an old biology principle where finding the animal that does something best and learning how that animal does it is the way to get something done. Additionally, the praying mantis is an ideal model organism for studying decision making. It is known that mantises adapt more aggressive hunting methods when their hungry, suggesting it may risk morebeing eaten to pursue prey if sufficiently motivated. Understanding how this decision is made to balance risk and need is critical for an autonomous robot in a real world environment.
““We want to take how the mantis controls its body and turn that into a computer program that functions in a similar way, and use that to control the robot.”
— Josh Martin, Professor of Biology
Martin’s team implants electrodes into a mantis’s brain to monitor neural activity while it stalks simulated prey to determine which cells respond to prey. At the same time, students watch videos of the mantis as it hunts and carefully measure how each of the insect’s six legs move. These movements are matched up with the recorded neural activity to map leg motions to brain activity. To endow legged robots with robust intelligence, Martin and Quinn propose that intelligence be added in a bottom-up fashion–highly organized low-level networks should produce complete motor patterns, which can be modulated by inputs from descending interneurons.
In the end, Martin and Quinn’s goal is to enable their legged robot to walk robustly in rough terrain, autonomously seek rewards while avioding harm, and react appropriately to never-before-seen scenarios.
ATLAS OF MAINE
Philip Nyhus, Ph.D.
The Atlas of Maine is developed by students in Introduction to Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Remote Sensing, an interdisciplinary course in the Environmental Studies Program at Colby College, under the direction of Dr. Philip Nyhus. The goal of this project is to develop a series of maps highlighting the unique human and natural resources of Maine.
CHURCH FORESTS IN ETHIOPIA
“As ecologists in a country where natural forests have all but vanished, we will be documenting plant and animal species diversity in church forests, working with local academics and the church community to observe habitat conditions, identify critical threat and priority conservation sites, and evaluate impacts of recent conservation efforts.”
— Travis Reynolds, Environmental Studies
A National Science Foundation grant awarded to professors Travis Reynolds (environmental studies) and Cat Collins (biology) funded a summer NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program based at Colby and in South Gondar, Ethiopia. Eight undergraduate students from U.S. colleges and universities are chosen to conduct interdisciplinary research on ecological, economic, and cultural roles of church forests in the highlands of South Gondar.
Under the eight-week program, students receive training at Colby in social survey research, spatial analysis using Geographic Information Systems (the GIS Lab was funded by a grant from the Oak Foundation), ecological field methods, and written and oral communication. The student researchers travel to South Gondar where they work closely with mentors from Colby and South Carolina State University, and local institutions to conduct and share their original research.
WHAT ARE CHURCH FORESTS?
Church forests are patches of Afromontane forest surrounding Ethiopian Orthodox churches. Preserved by church leaders and communities as religious sanctuaries, church forests are, in many parts of Ethiopia, the only indigenous forests left. From an institutional perspective, church forests show how non-state actors such as religious institutions can play major roles in conservation. From an ecological perspective, church forests are crucial reserves for Ethiopia’s vanishing biodiversity.
WHAT ARE THE BROADER IMPACTS?
The leadership of the U.S. is critical to the success of global efforts to reverse environmental degradation in low-income countries. This REU site is designed to spark global interest in the conservation of tropical forests, but also to learn from and strengthen existing conservation institutions in Ethiopia.
Due to the insular nature of church forest communities, very few academic studies have been conducted and outsiders are rarely permitted access to these sacred sites. Today many church forests are rapidly degrading due to a combination of pressure from livestock grazing and tree-harvesting by community members. This has prompted church leaders to permit access to selected researchers with an aim to better understand major drivers of church forest loss and to rally local and international support to conserve those forests that remain.
The humanities will play an even larger role in Colby’s expanding cross-campus and multi-disciplinary approach to the study of the environment.
A grant award from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has launched an environmental humanities initiative building on current and existing strengths, particularly with the College’s Environmental Studies Program, and establishing an innovative new research and teaching focus at Colby.
This new focus will bring artistic, cultural, ethical, historical, and literary perspectives to environmental topics and will enhance opportunities for faculty collaboration across disciplines and departments, linking courses and scholarship while supporting new curricular connections across the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.