Dante Lamenza Naylor

Physics Research Inspired by the Movement of Animals in Nature

Dante Lamenza Naylor '24 studies natural physics systems—such as a bird wing moving through air or a fish fin in water—to explore potential enhancements to renewable energy technologies using soft materials.

Dante Lamenza Naylor '24

Physics and Mathematics

Maynard, MA

What drew you to this field of study?

I recall enjoying the explanatory nature of my introductory physics classes in high school. I was motivated to pursue the study of physics as a career by theoretical physicist Richard Feynman’s outlook on the process of scientific discovery. At UMass, I was drawn to Assistant Professor Varghese Mathai's group because he already had some undergraduate students doing their own research projects. As I worked in soft matter, I realized the sheer breadth and beauty of it. Despite the theory being mostly classical, there is still a vast amount of contemporary mystery! Additionally, the intuitive nature of the subject allows for some creativity, flexibility, and speed in the design and construction of experiments, which is something I am told is often missed in, say, fundamental particle research.

How do you conduct your research?

Typically, my research starts by looking closely at some physical system—such as a bird wing in the air or a fish fin in water—and taking its behavior as inspiration for further study. I read as much as possible on the subject, starting from the latest papers and following citations as far back as seems necessary. Then, I identify some missing information or something to resolve further and use this to construct a problem statement. I try to plan a project timeline and anticipate bottlenecks as much as possible. Learning to do a new experiment usually takes effort, as well as planning and time management, as I need to wait for materials to be delivered. The actual construction process is usually comparatively quick.  

I execute the plan, anticipating that only about 50 percent will go as predicted. I have often been told that plans [that] go perfectly are not pushing any limits. As things deviate from the plan, the process of getting back on track varies on a case-by-case basis. This approach—reviewing plans each day and making small adjustments as needed—has served me well so far. It has also helped me learn that not everything one finds in literature is correct, so it’s necessary to take things with a grain of salt.  

What do you see as the impact—or potential impact—of your work?

Soft materials and their interactions with fluids, such as air or water, have been studied for decades, taking inspiration from the locomotion of some animals such as fish and birds. My research at UMass has been centered around elucidating details surrounding soft materials’ potential to harness energy from flowing fluids. An example of this would be a bird flying in the same direction as the surrounding wind to gain additional speed and support during flight. How efficient are their wings at doing so, and how does this efficiency depend on their wings’ ability to bend and stretch? Can current technologies be enhanced by including soft, flexible, shape-morphing components? A potential impact of this work would be the development of new technologies that allow for improvements in renewable energy extraction from fluid motion. For example, such technologies could be water turbines with soft fins to enhance efficiency, or soft “hydrofoils”—a technical term for some wing-like shapes—undergoing undulatory, fish-like movements to harness energy from rushing tidal and river flows. 

How does your faculty mentor support your research?

Assistant Professor Mathai has supported my research in many ways. He has offered much guidance on the subject material [and] in navigating academia in general. He has encouraged—and even funded—some of my trips to American Physical Society conferences, where I have presented my research. He also suggested applying for an internship to gain additional experience in state-of-the art experiments, and I was accepted to such an internship at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. He has also consistently encouraged me to attend local seminars and to be involved in multiple collaborative projects in the group. I was able to meaningfully contribute to a separate—but related—study on shape-morphable parachutes inspired by the wings of flying mammals (like bats). This study was recently published in Physical Review Letters. We are currently working on a manuscript on energy extraction from free-stream fluid flows, such as a steady river flow, where I am numerically studying the interaction between these flows and soft, thin, elastic materials. 

I am most proud of how far I have come since the beginning of my undergraduate career. The previous few years have passed by like lifetimes, and I have learned so much, both personally and professionally.

Dante Lamenza Naylor ’24

What do you find most exciting about conducting research?

It is exciting to analyze the results of experiments and simulations of complex fluidic systems and see something emergent that was not obvious, then try to explain it—particularly when it is difficult to explain. I also find it extremely pleasing to better understand the natural mechanisms that are often exploited in nature. The entire process of research—planning, having the plans fall apart, and scrambling for new plans—makes for an emotional rollercoaster. Collaborating and sharing ideas with other researchers often makes for great conversation, too. Though it may be cliché, studying something that has never been studied and trying to solve problems that have never been solved is nonetheless an exciting thought as well.

What are you most proud of?

I am most proud of how far I have come since the beginning of my undergraduate career. The previous few years have passed by like lifetimes, and I have learned so much, both personally and professionally. I have become more competent as a researcher in many respects: I present better, I discuss my work more clearly, I have become much more efficient at identifying and accomplishing complicated tasks, and I have gone out of my comfort zone and become a bit more worldly with my internship in the Netherlands.

How has your research enhanced your overall educational experience at UMass?

I would say it has made my educational experience at UMass. Classes are one thing, but research in physics is almost entirely different. I am confident that, without my involvement in research, I would not have had nearly as many opportunities to learn the skills necessary for my desired career in physics research.

What are your plans for the future?

I plan to continue researching topics in soft matter and developing my academic skills. I am currently applying to graduate schools with the hopes of getting into a doctoral program. My long-term goal is to remain in academia.

Why would you recommend UMass to a friend?

There are good faculty in the physics and mathematics departments here. The labs are also well-equipped; I have never run into an issue where something was not possible due to a lack of resources. UMass Amherst also strikes a good balance between academic rigor and social exposure. I have had many opportunities to make new personal and professional connections while performing research here, which I am really grateful for.

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