What if there was a way to entrap and prevent the proliferation of bed bugs that didn’t involve the use of pesticides?
That’s just one of the questions being explored by Catherine Loudon, Ph.D., a professor at the University of California, Irvine whose work can be aptly described as interdisciplinary, involving areas such as physical biology, biomechanics, biomimetic design and insect physiology.
“I’m really interested in how living organisms work, and in using an engineering approach to study biological questions,” says the AAAS Member. “How does an insect run across the surface of water or how does a flying insect manage to fly?” And, as in the case of her research on control and eradication of bed bugs, what can we learn from existing structures in nature (such as bean plant leaves, which have pointy, sharp hooks on their surface upon which bed bugs become impaled when they run across) and use that to fabricate a contraption to catch these critters?
“My primary project right now is working with this idea of developing physical insecticides… using physical methods as opposed to chemical methods for insect control,” says Loudon, who notes that using physical means to control pests, such as mosquito nets, have long been in practice throughout human history.
“I’m working with microfabrication engineers to make surfaces that can physically entrap pests as a method of pest control that’s more sustainable and environmentally friendly,” Loudon explains. She uses electron microscopy to look at the surfaces of leaves and the damage incurred by the bugs. “It’s technically fairly demanding because you’re having to deal with lots of different spatial scales.”
Eventually, her discoveries could potentially be adapted to capture other creepy crawlies and critters. “The application could be used for other kinds of arthropod pests, other insect pests,” notes Loudon. “Hypothetically, just about any pest could be entrapped using this method. I’m so excited about the prospects of my research resulting in development of something that fits a societal need.”
While the real-world applications of Loudon’s work on bed bug infestation control—which has led to several patents—is clear, she is also conducting other research that is just as fascinating, but is more in the theoretical realm for now. “I am studying insect antennae and their fairly extraordinary mechanosensory and chemosensory structures,” says Loudon. “I’m also figuring out how they process information about the insects’ environment to inform sensor design—that’s another example of a biomimetic project.”
Her work could one day lead to the development of flexible sensors that can obtain and process information about surface texture or other properties of an object or area, even in cases where there is no way to add light to a dark environment to gather visual data or there is restricted physical access to what needs to be measured.
Loudon’s work is a perfect example of the innovation and synergy that can happen when data and research from different disciplines are considered in a cross-collaborative manner and explored holistically, rather than the traditional stove piping that can often happen in academia, organizations and other spaces.
For as long as Loudon can remember, she was interested in all things science. “I’ve always enjoyed math, physics, biology, chemistry and engineering, and my main challenge when I went to college was what I should major in because I was interested in all of them,” she recalls. “So, I picked the major that was the broadest—biophysics.”
Loudon later realized that she was the only person in her year who’d made that choice. “It wasn’t a very popular major,” she says. “In fact, I was the only [biophysics] major in my year which I thought was kind of funny.” She loved experiencing all the different sciences, she says, and has never looked back.
“The specific areas that were the most compelling to me often involved physical principles, but applying them not just within the physical realm but in the biological realm, whether it’s at an ecological level or at an organism level,” says Loudon. Eventually, she realized that there was more opportunity within the biological sciences to apply physical principles, but that the reverse wasn’t the case.
“That’s when I learned about different Ph.D. programs doing biomechanics and I ended up choosing one in zoology at Duke University where I could study biomechanics exclusively, and my minor was in mechanical engineering,” says Loudon. “I was able to continue interdisciplinary training, which they valued and I valued. It was a nice fit for me.”
Loudon’s academic background and career thus far has made her a strong proponent of interdisciplinary opportunities and wide lens thinking. This has carried over into her work mentoring undergraduate and graduate students. It’s also resulted in several published papers on effective teaching and assessment methods. In her experience, seeing a problem from a different STEM discipline can often pique somebody’s interest and maybe inspire them or make them feel more creative.
“I think that’s part of the fun that leads to cross-talk. If a person has the opportunity to speak to somebody else in a different field and they can make connections, then the person realizes they can learn something new and novel jumping into a different field a bit,” Loudon says.