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Floris van Breugel received a prestigious grant from the Air Force Research Laboratory

Each year, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) solicits grant proposals from scientists and engineers who meet in the first seven years of their career and show exceptional promise to conduct research with potential military application through their Young Investigators Research Program (YIP). After receiving a Sloan fellowship in neuroscience, Assistant Professor of the Department of Mechanical Engineering Floris van Breugel was recently named one of 36 to receive the three-year YIP grant of $ 450,000 this year.

"I feel very lucky," van Breugel said. “Receiving these awards early helps me manage the stress of being an assistant professor and now allows me to focus on doing the science that will lead to more ideas and more puzzles, setting the course for my career.”

"Building a universal theory of multisensory integration"

In general terms, van Breugel's research focuses on sensory integration and seeks to answer the question: "What is the best way to integrate different sensory modalities? " In other words, how do living things incorporate visual data, wind detection, and a host of other sensory details to orient themselves in the world?

To answer these questions, van Breugel has turned his attention to insects. Specifically, using a wind tunnel, he tries to separate the fruit fly's response to two specific stimuli: smell and wind. To achieve this goal, he is using optogenetics on genetically altered flies. By modifying a group of neurons to respond to light in the way they would respond to smell, van Breugel is able to determine how olfactory stimulation specifically directs fly behavior.

"Research combines engineering with biology," van Breugel said. "By producing virtual wind-independent scent experiences, we can see exactly what the flies are responding to."

While the YIP grant – "Building a Universal Theory of Multisensory Integration" – is specifically for basic research, it has strong potential application to the Air Force. Van Breugel explained: “We currently do not have robotic systems to track odors or chemical columns. We don't know how to efficiently find the source of a windblown chemical. By isolating the odor from the wind and understanding how a fly can find the source of an odor, we could theoretically train inexpensive drones to use a similar process to find the source of chemicals and chemical leaks. ”

The intersection of biological and engineering systems

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<figcaption> This image from van Breugel's laboratory shows a 4-second exposure of a fruit fly flying close to a strawberry while illuminated by a beam of light. To find the strawberry, the fly follows a simple set of rules that include turning against the wind after encountering an attractive scent and zigzag crosswind when they lose track. </figcaption></figure><p> Since van Breugel's research is at the intersection of engineering and biology, it has the potential to provide a multitude of efficient and vital advances in robotics and machine learning that are based on systems existing biologicals. If we can train a drone to identify the source of an odor as effectively as a fly, what else can we borrow from the living world for application in engineering?</p><p> "The questions that we are exploring are complicated, "said van Breugel. “When it comes to understanding sensory integration, there are many opportunities at the interface of biological systems and engineering systems. At this time, there is no good engineering solution for odor column monitoring, but even for systems where there are solutions, there are endless ways to solve the problem. If we understand how different animals solve these problems, we can find more robust and economical solutions in engineering systems. There may be other solutions with other benefits that we have not yet discovered. "</p><p> Before joining the University in January 2019, Van Breugel earned his Ph.D. from Caltech in 2014 in Dynamic Systems and Control with support from the National Science Foundation and Hertz Graduate Fellowships while working with Michael Dickinson on insect flight biomechanics, multisensory control and integration. He subsequently went to the University of Washington to work with Jeff Riffell and J. Nathan Kutz as a postdoc to work on strategies for insect search and machine learning approaches to the identification of complex systems systems, supported by a Sackler fellowship in biophysics and a Moore-Sloan fellowship. -WRF fellowships in DataScience.</p><p> that Floris is undertaking combines natural curiosity about the way the world works with an eye toward practical application that has the potential to m improve lives, ”said the dean of the Engineering School, Manos Maragakis. “This is what engineers do: they overcome the challenges we all face to provide solutions that advance knowledge and ensure a better future for all. Floris is well on his way to a remarkable career with great impact. We are proud of their achievements. ”</p><p> The YIP grant will also provide funding for two graduate students and one postdoctoral fellow to support the van Breugel lab. In addition to conducting research on the project, the postdoctoral fellow will help facilitate the training of researchers and increase the efficiency of the laboratory.</p></p></div>
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