Tufts University

Little Creatures, Big Ideas

Barry TrimmerBarry Trimmer isn't your average neurobiologist. He rides a motorcycle to work every day, builds his own lab equipment and has found a caterpillar that may inspire a new generation of robots.

"When I was a kid, I had a lot of chemistry equipment. Eventually, my dad got fed up with me setting fire to the curtains in the house, so he built me a shed down on the garden and said, 'Do everything down there.' I was going to be a chemist, but when I was about 10 years old, I got interested in snake collecting. I found animals fascinating and gradually got more into biology."

Barry Trimmer, an associate professor in the biology department at the School of Arts and Sciences, is just as excited about animals today as he was 36 years ago. His neurobiology laboratory at Tufts is literally crawling with four-inch long, iridescent-green tobacco hornworm caterpillars. He's been studying them intently for the past 18 years.

"I don't think any of my caterpillar research was ever planned, I've always just followed my interests," Trimmer says with a slight British accent - a holdover from his upbringing in England. "I discovered the caterpillars through the scientific literature as an interesting 'model system.' I thought it would be an intriguing animal to study."

Trimmer is one of just a few scientists to closely study the tobacco hornworm, which has been largely ignored by the public and science community alike. Though a relatively small creature (about the size of a roll of Lifesavers), the caterpillar's compact body - which has no rigid skeleton or bones - is home to 2,000 muscles and a surprisingly sophisticated nervous system.

"As they've evolved, soft-bodied animals like caterpillars have learned to move in confined three-dimensional structures such as tubes and branches. They can crumple, compress and rotate their bodies with virtually unlimited freedom."

For the past three years, Trimmer has been steadily unlocking secrets about how the hornworms coordinate their extensive infrastructure of muscles when they walk and climb. Each new piece of information has raised exciting questions for Trimmer about how his research might shape future innovations in science and technology.

Chief among them: Can he use his caterpillar research to create a blueprint for a new generation of flexible robots that can navigate in extremely restricted spaces?

It's a question Trimmer is eager to answer.

"Once we've figured out how these creatures move, we should be able to use that information to build robots with similar versatility. Imagine the possibilities! Winding pipelines, cramped tunnels, even intricate structures such as blood vessels and air tubes will be much easier to explore."

Trimmer has outfitted his lab with a broad array of sophisticated equipment - some of which he designed himself - to track every movement in the caterpillar's complex system of locomotion. Using the data, his research team is creating three-dimensional computer models of the hornworms and their muscle systems. They will start work on a prototype for the robots in just a few months.

Trimmer admits that sophisticated robots based on his research are still several years off, but he's just as excited about the process of scientific discovery as he is about the final results.

Barry Trimmer

"Being curious about the way things work - whatever they are - is really important. It's a fundamental aspect of being a scientist. I think curiosity is probably one of the key parts of my personality. I'm a scientist all the time. When I'm in the shower in the morning, I'm thinking about scientific stuff. I'm always thinking about experiments, thinking about what new things we could do."

To help him in his quest, Trimmer looks for undergraduates who share his passion for exploring the unknown. More than 50 students from a variety of departments have taken up the challenge and worked alongside Trimmer over the past 14 years. He admits the work can be demanding, but says students have an unusual amount of freedom to explore their own ideas and interests.

"I'm always looking for independent and creative students who are dedicated. I tell my students, 'Here's the problem, here's the thing we're interested in. These are my ideas, but I'm really interested in you taking this project and making it your own.' It gives them a little bit of room to, what I call, play."

Trimmer clearly enjoys his work and spends significant amounts of time in the classroom and his lab. But the energetic scientist still finds time to relax. His motorcycle helps clear his mind. "I used to motorcycle race," he says. His helmet sits on a filing cabinet a few feet from his desk and his motorcycle is usually parked nearby. Trimmer rides it to work almost every day.

"I've been riding my whole life. In fact, when I came to the States, I'd never driven a car at all. I've driven across the U.S. on my motorcycle three times. I never knew what America was like until I got on the road. I had no sense of its scale or magnificence. It's huge and most of it is empty and gorgeous. The cross-country trips changed my impression of where I was living. I realized it wasn't just this environment that I was experiencing - I was part of something much bigger."

He views his role as a teacher and mentor in a similar light.

"I get fulfilled not just from doing science, but from actually training scientists. They're doing neat, fun stuff - and I think most of them are a lot smarter than I and they'll do better stuff than I'll ever do. It's nice to see them get a springboard. We've had a couple of students who had no idea if they wanted to go to graduate school. After they worked in the lab, they said, 'This is it! This is what I want to do.'"

Trimmer knows that feeling well. He experiences it almost every time he walks into his lab, especially as his caterpillar research builds more momentum.

"A soft-bodied robot could be just a few years off. It might not work as well as a caterpillar because they've had 300 million years to optimize. But, I think we'll have something that's very flexible and moving around within a few years. It's close… I can almost feel it."

Profile written by Daniel Black, Class of 2005

Daniel Black, a native of Wayland, Massachusetts, is a comparative religions major and a communications and media studies minor. He was the news editor of the Tufts Observer for two semesters, worked as an intern at the Boston Phoenix and was a reporter for several local newspapers in the greater Boston area. A member of the Class of 2005, Black works at a local area synagogue where he teaches and is the youth group director for high school students.

This story originally ran on Aug. 30, 2004