My Lab Unlocked: Dr Parvez Alam FRSB

Dr Parvez Alam FRSB and his team work within the Materials Modelling and Design Lab at The University of Edinburgh, researching biological organisms from an engineering perspective

21st May 2021 

My group works in biomimetic design. We combine a wide variety of activities spanning from bioprospecting fieldwork trips, to lab-based research on biological organisms, and from modelling and design to manufacture and testing. One of the primary focus areas in my group involves unique biological structures and species, researched from a perspective of materials science and mechanics.

We have a great interest in the structure-properties relationship of different biological materials. Our work is typically conducted at every length scale, since biological materials often exhibit differing levels of structural hierarchy, each contributing in their own way to the final properties of the material. Our research on materials from biological organisms is essentially aimed towards inspiring the design and development of multifaceted engineering materials of the future.

We also have a strong and active interest in the mobility, biomechanics and kinematics of organisms, and our research in this area inspires our work on the design of biomimetic machines and robots.

Alam lab field workDr Parvez and some of his team conducting fieldwork. From Left-to-Right - Andi, Saiful, Adhityo, Parvez, Puspa, Dwiki and Immanuel

Repeating what biology does in an engineering context is not trivial. Biological structures and biological manufacturing techniques are extremely complex. We recognise that the way in which organisms organise, sense, respond and adapt is something that we need to apply to engineering, but these mechanisms are hard to mimic. 

A simple example is the manufacture of spider silk. It is a high energy absorbing natural material that exhibits these properties by aligning certain repeating patterns of amino acids in a way that effectively resists intermolecular shear. Silk originates as a liquid dope in the glands of the spider, and this is drawn through complex spider-machinery known as spinnerets. None of this is simple. There is an art to thread-making that the spider understands, and that we would like to copy. I mention the spider since this is an oft-discussed topic, but it is only one of many organisms in biology that are of interest to us.

spiderlingsN.cruentata protecting its egg case and spiderlings
Perhaps the most interesting characteristic of our group is that we view biology through the eyes of engineers. We use engineering principles and methodologies to research biological organisms, and many of the tools we use for our research in biology are the same that we use for engineering structures.
Since we are engineers, we are also able to make our own unique tools, testing equipment and analysis software to extract the information we need from the various biological specimens under scrutiny. One fun example is a claw grip strength testing machine that was designed and manufactured to be able to coherently and consistently test different animal claws for their ability to grip onto surfaces.
I originally developed my group when I was working in Finland, before I relocated to The University of Edinburgh. Some of our proudest achievements are actually the contributions we’ve made to biological journals, when through our field work we’ve stumbled across organisms that have surprised us.
One example relates to tree climbing fish, which I first observed in Semarang, Indonesia with my PhD student Adhityo. Naturally, we worked hard to understand how this fish (P. variabilis) climbs trees based on the geometrical and material properties of its fins, the slimy substance it secretes, and the adhesion mechanisms it employs. What shocked us further was discovering that this fish was also able to hop across the surface of the water. This was a new form of fish kinematic that had not been detailed before.
We published our work in Zoology and have already started trying to figure out how we could design multi-terrain rescue robots based on the different forms of locomotion that this fish exhibits.
AteeqLab member Ateeq studies spider and moth silk egg cases and cocoons to design novel materials
Another big discovery happened in Kisumu in Kenya, where when stumbling across a group of insect farmers, we discovered a spider species (N. cruentata) that spins the world’s toughest egg case silk with a toughness of 193MJ/m3, which is 30MJ/m3 higher than the previously highest recorded egg case silk. Ateeq, who recently joined the group as a PhD student, is now researching other types of silk cocoon architectures and is working to develop ripstop textiles based on them.

We’re always interested in collaborating with zoologists, marine biologists and entomologists. They know the animals and can get us to where we want to go! We already have strong collaborations with the marine biology and entomology groups at Universtas Gadjah Mada in Indonesia, at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, and with random animal biology groups scattered around different parts of the world, but we’re always interested in and happy to collaborate with more of them.

Alam Lab indonesia team smallA collection of Dr Alam's team in Indonesia (pre-pandemic)

Ultimately, it’s a lot of fun working at the interface between biology and engineering like this and we all end up needing to learn the “languages of different subjects” through these collaborations. So it’s a win-win for intellectual, cross-disciplinary development.

Due to COVID, travelling has been a massive problem. We’ve been focussing more on modelling over this COVID period, while we wait for the old-normal to return. My PhD student Gabrielis for example, has been simulating impact on a variety of crab shells to determine how geometry affects damage tolerance, and since some of our labs at Edinburgh have been partially open for research students, we have used these to the best of our potential. Chidume, who is running the final stretch of his PhD, has also been looking into crab shell structures. His work has focussed on fabricating crab-shell inspired damage tolerant materials that ‘might’ one day end up protecting planes and helicopters from potentially calamitous real-world problems such as bird strike. 

Chidume in the labLab member Chidume works on researching and mimicking crab architectures
Without our collaborations worldwide, we would never have managed to make the discoveries that we have. We acknowledge the Faculty of Biology and the Marine Study Club (Kelompok Studi Kelautan) at Universitas Gadjah Mada, Indonesia (Dr. Bambang Retnoaji, Dr.Eko Agus Suyono, Prof. Budi Setiawan) for supporting the plethora of research projects we have conducted together; the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Cape Town, South Africa (Prof. Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan) for supporting our work on sperm and baleen whales; the University of the Sunshine Coast (Dr. Christofer Clemente) for supporting our work on lizards claws; Nanyang Technological University (Dr. Ali Miserez) for supporting our work on biological materials whilst in transit between two continents; and Kisumu Insect Farms in Kenya (Danish Otieno) for supporting our work that led to the discovery of the world’s toughest recorded spider egg case silks. 
Dr Parvez Alam FRSB is a senior lecturer at The University of Edinburgh
GabrielasLab member Gabrielis works on crab shell impact simulations