Acute Ethanol Administration Affects Zebrafish Preference for a Biologically Inspired Robot

M.PorfiriMaurizio Porfiri is an Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering of the Polytechnic Institute of New York University. He received M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees in Engineering Mechanics from Virginia Tech; a “Laurea” in Electrical Engineering and a Ph.D. in theoretical and applied mechanics from the University of Rome “La Sapienza” and the University of Toulon (dual degree program). He is the author of more than 130 journal publications, and his research has been featured in numerous major media outlets, including CNN, Discovery Channel, and NPR.

His work is at the interface of mechanical systems and biology, specifically focusing on the interaction between animals and robots. He has received the National Science Foundation CAREER award, the Outstanding Young Alumnus award from the College of Engineering of Virginia Tech, the ASME Gary Anderson Early Achievement Award, and the ASME DSCD Young Investigator Award; and has been named to the Popular Science “Brilliant 10” list for young scientists. Recently he published an article titled: ‘Acute ethanol administration affects zebrafish preference for a biologically inspired robot’ in the journal Alcohol.

Background of the study

As a child, I loved mathematics, I was fascinated by the sea and by animals. I was always curious about everything around me and was driven to build “stuff”, even with results that did not always warrant the effort. As an adult, I am trying to find a balance between these passions, while keeping clear goals of being an accomplished researcher, a role model for youngsters exploring the world of engineering, science, and technology, and an enthusiastic professor committed to my community in Brooklyn.


The fish’ n’ robots project investigates the feasibility of integrating bio-inspired robotic fish in live fish schools through a multidisciplinary study of collective behavior at the interface of dynamical systems, ethology, and robotics. My research group has played a defining role in shifting the focus of traditional bio-inspired engineering from considering nature as a mere source of inspiration to actually identifying nature as a target for implementation of bio-inspired technology. Beyond experimentally studying the visual cues that elicit fish attraction, we have demonstrated that a robotic fish can lead live fish if its tail beat frequency and speed are tailored to produce a hydrodynamic advantage for the following fish. This finding posits that bio-mimetic locomotion is a fundamental determinant of robotic leadership and, possibly, that limitations in closely mimicking live subjects’ visual appearance may be compensated by careful engineering design.


A particularly relevant application of this integration is the use of robots to regulate animal behavior in laboratory and natural environments. Experiments in laboratory settings can uncover the fundamental determinants of animal functions and dysfunctions by leveraging the use of robots coupled with established genetic and pharmacological techniques. By contrast, the possibility of deploying robots which can aggregate, lead, or repel target animal species in natural environments can greatly aid animal protection, production, or control.

Additional research

I would like to build on these findings to transition my experiments to more complex scenarios, in which multiple species are present and additional stimuli act as a confound, to eventually explore the practicality of field studies. At the same time, we are in the process of developing more performing robots that can autonomously make decisions in response to fish behavior.

Increasing awareness

This interdisciplinary research is the engine of our Brooklyn-outreach programs that take advantage of robots, animals, and enthusiasm to promote engineering, science, and technology in K-12 students. Over the past few years, we have established a few effective programs to outreach to K-12 students, ranging from formal curricular activities where my research students bring to the classroom their research experience in biology and engineering to fun-science programs at the New York Aquarium. Our robots will soon become part of a permanent exhibit at the New York Aquarium, where free-choice learners will be able to interact with them using iDevices in an NSF-supported informal science education program.

Advice from the field

This is a fascinating research field where creativity is critical, it is a lot of fun, and I feel there is room for major advancements

About the department

The Polytechnic Institute of New York University (formerly the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute and the Polytechnic University, now widely known as NYU-Poly) is an affiliated institute of New York University, and will become its School of Engineering in January 2014. NYU-Poly, founded in 1854, is the nation’s second-oldest private engineering school. It is presently a comprehensive school of education and research in engineering and applied sciences, rooted in a 159-year tradition of invention, innovation and entrepreneurship. It remains on the cutting edge of technology, innovatively extending the benefits of science, engineering, management and liberal studies to critical real-world opportunities and challenges, especially those linked to urban systems, health and wellness, and the global information economy. In addition to its programs on the main campus in New York City at MetroTech Center in downtown Brooklyn, it offers programs around the globe remotely through NYUe-Poly. NYU-Poly is closely connected to engineering in NYU Abu Dhabi and NYU Shanghai and to the NYU Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP) also at MetroTech, while operating two incubators in downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn.