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From idea to innovation

Cent Univ 1Professor Tom Daniel is a busy man. When he is not teaching future biologists, mentoring graduate students or leading a national research center, Daniel has his hands full at his lab on campus. There, he is leading an impressive cohort of emerging young scientists who are studying the behavior and movement of insects. “Through evolution, flying animals have solved a host of guidance, navigation and control problems. There isn’t an aircraft on the planet that can match the complex and exceedingly agile flight maneuvers seen in nature,” says Daniel.

In studying insect behavior, Daniel is focusing on how the brain, even the smallest, does things that the most complex super-computers cannot. Take for example that a moth makes split-second decisions in flight — to turn left or right, to go under a branch or over it. Understanding how the brain is set up to make these decisions is the key to what’s next.

Daniel’s team is already taking their discoveries and forming recommendations that may lead to robotic devices capable of making such decisions autonomously. These nature-inspired devices could have broad applications— from augmenting the body’s ability for sensation and movement in individuals with neural disorders, to aiding in search and rescue efforts and improving our understanding of how mosquitos spread malaria.

Such groundbreaking research could not happen without private support, including funding provided by the Richard and Joan Komen University Chair. Professor Daniel’s passionate team has benefitted from the prestigious endowment since 1999. In that time he has expanded the scope of his research, been selected as a MacArthur genius and inspired countless young scientists to push the limits of what we currently know.

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And yet, Daniel would be the first to say he isn’t the only beneficiary. Over the years, the gift has supported more than 50 students, ranging from postdoctoral trainees to high school students. It has created a world of good by funding novel research endeavors, salaries and even travel to scientific meetings, where students have presented their research findings to audiences around the world.

“Students, postdocs, and emerging young scientists at all career stages benefit from the ecosystem of collaboration and intellectual risk-taking enabled by the Komen endowment,” says Daniel proudly. “I think both Mr. Komen and I are honestly stunned by the impact.”