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Michelle Graham: Physics, philosophy, and flying snakes

Flying snake
Photo credit: Jake Socha

The following story was written in April 2018 by Caroline Stewart in ​ENGL ​4824​: Science Writing ​as part of a collaborative project that included the English department, the Center for Communicating Science, ​the ​Fralin Life Science​ Institute​, and ​Technology-enhanced Learning and Online ​Strategies (TLOS).

Most would describe Michelle Graham as a snake person, especially since she works with these creatures more than the average person. But what many don’t realize is that Michelle is just an animal person in general. She grew up watching nature documentaries, leading her eventually to attend graduate school at Virginia Tech in biomedical engineering and mechanics to study the locomotion of snakes. In particular, she measures their movements and their jumps with cameras in order to understand how their behavior while moving from tree to tree affects their ecology.

    Michelle, originally from Arlington, VA, attended the University of Oxford for her undergraduate studies in physics and philosophy. She’s always been one to try new things, she says, and Oxford seemed like a great place to push herself. The physics and philosophy program specifically appealed to her because she would be able to keep her love of science and her love of the humanities intertwined – both of which are integral to her studies and her fascination with  how the world works today.

    While studying animal locomotion, Michelle uses physics because her specific line of work uses standard classical mechanics. However, philosophy is just as useful, especially since it has sharpened her critical thinking, writing, and logic skills. With philosophy providing so many benefits – from helping scientists design their experiments, to interpreting the implications of their research – the increased understanding of logic stands to greatly benefit the scientific community, Michelle feels.

    Michelle knew she wanted to study comparative biomechanics (the mechanics of different species of animals), but this area of research is usually located in biology programs. When applying to graduate school, she wanted to stick with either an engineering or physics program, so finding the Socha lab–led by principal investigator Dr. Jake Socha–was the perfect fit. As soon as she saw that his work involved flying snakes, she was sold.

    Since there are so many interesting questions surrounding various animals, Michelle found that choosing her research was a longer process than she would have liked, especially since she ultimately knew she wanted to work with snakes. Currently she is trying to understand how the physics behind their movements affects how they live in their environment.

    "If one species of snake is better at cantilevering or extending itself than another, how does that affect where they choose to live?" said Michelle.

    Michelle cares where snakes live in different sections of a tree’s canopy because of the abundance of applications this may have. In engineering, for example, a lot of robots are dedicated to exploring movements in different ways, but newer applications have robots swim, climb, crawl, and swing–all of which a snake can do. Knowing how snakes move between gaps of trees can help design robots to  navigate through fallen buildings with broken, uneven floors.

    To set up her experiments, Michelle made a stand with two PVC pipes. Opposite the stand is a nice arrangement of fake plants to entice the snakes to either reach over or jump. She places  the snake at the end of one stand, facing the plants, and measures the movement of the snake using a six-camera motion-capture system. The cameras send out infrared light, and markers on the snake’s body reflect back its position. The cameras then record its motions. 

Gap-bridging experimental set-up
Photo credit: Jake Socha
Gap-bridging experiment
Photo credit: Jake Socha

    From here, Michelle plans to study the relatives of the snake species she’s currently measuring in her experiments. After that, she plans to organize a field project to document behaviors of  different species in nature. Specifically, she wants to go to Southeast Asia to place accelerometers (or Fitbits for snakes, as she calls them) on snakes in the wild.  

    Michelle is excited to go into any field after she’s finished with her work at Virginia Tech, but she’s not sure where. She wants to continue to do research, especially since there are so many unanswered questions about animal behavior.

    “As long as I’m discovering things that aren’t in textbooks, I’ll be happy,” Michelle said.

    Whether the research is with snakes, animals, physics, technology, or anything else, Michelle just wants to continue to answer questions that spark her innate curiosity.