December 29, 2014
Undergraduate robotics researcher returns to UW as assistant professor
Sam Burden, ’08, started as a bored high school student in eastern Washington who wasn’t even planning on going to college to an incoming assistant professor in the University of Washington’s Electrical Engineering Department. As someone who looks to apply his knowledge to solving problems, undergraduate research in robotics was key to Burden’s academic experience.
Burden’s first exposure to the UW was in high school when he participated in the Summer Institute for Mathematics. “The intellectual community really got me pumped about college,” remembers Burden. Tuition was out-of-reach, however, which made scholarship support critical. Fortunately, his offer of admission to the UW Honors Program came with scholarship support, alleviating some financial concern and bringing early opportunities for undergraduate research.
The summer before his freshman year at the UW, and with the support of his NASA Space Grant Scholarship, Burden joined Eric Klavin’s lab. He was thrilled.
The Klavins Lab in the Electrical Engineering Department was applying biological principles to engineering; Burden worked on building self-assembling robots that would interact like cells. Through this experience, he realized that he could use mathematics’ theories to build something tangible, and that majoring in electrical engineering lent itself to this mix.
The Klavins Lab was a good fit but after his first two years at the UW, Burden’s initial scholarship support was running out and he needed additional funding to continue with his research. Thus, the Washington Research Foundation’s (WRF) fellowship for advanced undergraduate researchers came at a critical time for Burden.
About Washington Research Foundation Fellowships
Washington Research Foundation Fellowships for advanced undergraduate research at the University of Washington recognize students’ accomplishments and —more importantly—are investments in their future promise. These fellowships offer critical support for students to grow as researchers, thinkers and scientific leaders.
Since the fellowship program’s inception in 2004, 91 awards totaling $600,000 have been made.
The fellowship requires students to devise their own research project. Through conversations with Professor Klavins, Burden proposed building self-assembling robots with body-like self-healing properties. His proposal was funded, and Burden continued working in the lab instead of at an off-campus job.
“It turned out to be a lot harder than I anticipated,” remembers Burden. But he credits the experience as inspiration for further interdisciplinary work and terrific preparation for graduate school-level research: “In research, you need to have a level of comfort with failure. You need to fail a lot, and I got a lot of my failures out of the way as an undergraduate.”
Now finishing his post-doctoral work at Berkeley, Burden will join the Electrical Engineering Department as an assistant professor in the fall of 2015. His research interests include understanding small-scale, multi-legged locomotion and then scaling that up to human size problems to improve, for example, the quality of life for people recovering from surgery or veterans with new limbs. The opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration at the UW and Seattle’s status as a center for health-related research are a few reasons that Burden looks forward to a career in higher education.
He also notes, “It would have been really hard for me to go to college without funding and scholarships, so I’m personally really excited to come back and help the next generation of undergraduates. There are really outstanding people who deserve all the support they can get and I’m really excited to come back and help play a role in that.”