Insect Behavior Inspires Julia Ebert, Alumna, to Create Buglike Robots

October 28, 2019

By Tracy Miller Geary

For Julia Ebert (B.S. summa cum laude, ’15) the connection between her major in neuroscience and minor in computer science has taken her from Boston to London and to Germany. Her interdisciplinary interests have also taken her from a focus on human learning and behavior to a bridge between robotic and human behavior. Her current work on bio-inspired robots as a PhD student at Harvard has roots in her Northeastern undergraduate education in both the College of Science and Khoury College – where she first applied her knowledge of programming to experiments with robots.

Ebert came to programming through PRISM, an innovative Northeastern program that was supported by the National Science Foundation. Offering real exposure to first- and second-year students interested in math, biology, and physics, the program introduced Ebert to her first experience with programming, in her freshman year. “Simple programming in Matlab really sparked my interest,” she says, pleased with how “it opened up so many possibilities.”

Through PRISM, Ebert met Professor Dagmar Sternad. As an undergrad in the College of Science, Ebert worked in Sternad’s Action Lab as a research assistant for four years, completing a thesis on how humans learn asymmetric bimanual task in which “people performed two actions at the same time, similar to rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time.” Additionally, in Khoury College she worked as a TA in Fundamentals of Computer Science (CS 2510) for two semesters, and as tutor for the class for three semesters preceding that, deepening her own knowledge of computer science while supporting her peers in their learning.

Reflecting on her interdisciplinary knowledge, Ebert stresses, “Computer science should be taught to scientists to give them powerful tools to do research and to look at your data.” She considers knowing how to program “an extra tool” in her toolbox.

Programming a simple robot to study human learning

During her senior year at Northeastern, she worked with a robot — called the HapticMaster — which provided force feedback to people in experiments, such as the simulated sensation of a ball rolling in a cup. Ebert explains the computer science angle: “I worked on programming experiments to study how humans learned a task when we changed this virtual force feedback from matching reality.”

Ebert’s first co-op experience was with Sternad doing research. She began the asymmetric learning project that eventually turned into her honors thesis.

Based on her scientific research and leadership, Ebert was named a Barry Goldwater Scholar in 2013, an award given annually to about 300 college sophomores and juniors, and a Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD) Award. That same year, her second co-op took her to the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Tübingen, Germany for her first research experience with robotics. She spent six months working at the German robotics lab, “looking at the connection between how humans learn and how robots learn.”

The following year she “poked her head outside of academia” and spent three months at her third co-op working at Interactive Motion Technologies, a company that provides advance robot solutions for patients with neurological conditions.  There she designed specifications for stroke evaluation software with input from clinicians, researchers, and software developers.

In 2015 Ebert earned a Marshall Scholarship, which finances young Americans of high ability to study for a graduate degree in the United Kingdom. Ebert credits Dr. Jonna Iacono, the director of University Scholars Program & Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships, for encouraging her to apply for this scholarship, which is awarded to only 32 students. At Imperial College London, she worked on programming a robotic exoskeleton to help people recover their balance, and earned a master’s degree in bioengineering.

Studying decision-making in bio-inspired robots

Currently a PhD candidate in computer science at Harvard University, Ebert is a member of Professor Radhika Nagpal’s lab. Her research topic is collective control and behavior in bio-inspired robotics, focusing on developing algorithms for collective decision making in groups of robots observing large environments. All of the decision-making work is done with Kilobots, their general-use robot swarm platform, inspired by insect-based behavior.

“I looked at insects, such as ants, because they have to agree on a new nest site,” she explains. The goal is to figure out how to get groups of robots to understand and classify their environment. “The bigger picture is to figure out how we can make robots work better together to outperform robots working alone.”

Ebert’s objective was to create robots that do the same thing: move together like one collective organism. Her research can keep robots from getting left behind and potentially help the group move faster on average. In the fall 2017, Ebert designed and built a platform for another project for studying robots moving together, nicknamed LARVAbots because of their goal: Locomotion of Autonomous Robots Via Aggregation.

“Sawfly larvae move as a group,” she explains, “so they look like one big organism. They overcome obstacles being in a group.” Ebert, curious to see if a group can stay together and move faster than an individual insect, replicated this in robots climbing on top of each other.  “They stayed together,” she says, “but then at the end, one of them ‘escaped’ the arena. It was very exciting.”

She continues to work with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory since her summer practicum in 2018 as a computational science graduate fellow in the Department of Energy. Her work there has her focused on cube satellites – small, cheap satellites in low earth orbit – around earth. “But even with my main research track, which is collective decision-making,” she says, “we see applications beyond earth – such as having a group of robots autonomously scout out a potential site for a human habitat on Mars.”

Ebert’s goal is to finish her Ph.D. in 2021 and stay in academia. “I really enjoy the research and teaching and mentoring.”