“Engineering is one of the less-understood fields, but it’s one of the most creative disciplines on campus,” observes Professor Naomi Ehrich Leonard.
As a mechanical and aerospace engineer, Leonard is fascinated by synthesis and she watches it happen in exciting ways in her classes and projects and across campus. “For someone who enjoys math and science and likes to integrate, design and create things, this is a wonderful place to be,” says the Class of ’85 alumna.
“There is an explosion in interdisciplinary research happening all over campus. Students react to that; it makes learning the fundamentals that much more intriguing. Everyone goes into class now armed with more ways to view problems than in the past. It opens new doors and encourages people to think more broadly.”
Leonard’s own research also focuses on synthesis. In recent years, she’s led multiple projects that seek to understand how individuals make decisions and behave within groups. She has collaborated often with ecologists and evolutionary biologists to study the collective motion of animals. She has also collaborated with oceanographers and other scientists to design mathematical formulas that allow them to program groups of small, autonomous, robotic agents for environmental exploration.
One such ongoing project is Adaptive Sampling and Prediction, a five-year program in which a fleet of autonomous, underwater vehicles records detailed observations of the ocean near Monterey Bay, CA. The project’s implications are considerable. Once groups of robotic agents can be programmed and coordinated as a group, domains previously inaccessible to humans, such as the oceans, rain forests, deserts and even other planets, may be open to exploration, detailed observation and prediction. Formal investigations of collective motion may also answer some of biology’s long-standing questions about the group behavior of various animal species.
Leonard often works with Princeton undergraduates in her lab, involving them in her projects on campus and in the field. For example, Spring Berman, a 2005 alumna, assisted Leonard in various projects and on site at Monterey Bay. “Spring had a focus in creative writing and published poems in The Paris Review. People here have diverse interests and it’s strongly encouraged. I focus on teaching them how to think abstractly and to integrate creatively,” says Leonard.
Leonard herself has explored the fusion of art and science, partnering with a glass artist to create an installation titled "Motion in the Ocean" for the recent Quark Park project in downtown Princeton. “There are so many exciting things going on,” she says. “I can't imagine anything more fun. There's so much to be understood and so many creative pursuits to follow.”