Undergrads Help Invent “Beastcam”

New device for 3-D images of animals

When Duncan Irschick, biology professor, was searching for a way to create 3-D models of live animals, he turned to students in his lab in Morrill, brainstorming with seniors Dylan Briggs and Kasey Smart. Over several months of research and trial and error, the trio invented the “Beastcam,” a camera and computer system resembling a spider that can produce 3-D images in a matter of seconds.

As inventors, they have filed for a provisional patent and hold the promise of groundbreaking research. Irschick has a way of quickly taking three-dimensional images of animals from sharks to geckos for new avenues of research. Briggs, a biochemistry major, and Smart, a mechanical engineering major, now list inventor on their resumes. “I didn’t think I would have ever had that on my resume,” says Briggs. Irschick says, “It is very rare that undergraduates get to become co-inventors on technology. It is not something you see in most universities.”

“It is very rare that undergraduates get to become co-inventors on technology. It is not something you see in most universities.” —Professor Duncan Irschick

The development of the Beastcam grew out of studies of geckos, funded by in part by the Human Frontier Science Program, a private foundation. Briggs also received a research grant from the Commonwealth Honors College.

Briggs, a member of the Commonwealth Honors College, joined Irschick’s lab near the end of his sophomore year, and last year recruited Smart to help with the design and building of the Beastcam that has four cameras on adjustable arms connected to a small computer. “It was wonderful to go from the planning stages to bringing the product to life,” says Smart.

Smart notes that the project introduced him to working with an interdisciplinary team, which will improve his opportunities for landing a job after he graduates in May. Briggs, headed for graduate school, says his research experience on finding the best software to run with the hardware and then going through the process of working on the provisional patent was invaluable.

Irschick and his students also have created a new way to expand knowledge of  hard-to-study animals. “We are on the cusp of an emerging technology,” says Irschick. With the 3-D models of live animals, scientists will be able to study their morphology, and ultimately, more fully understand how they move. For instance, some sharks migrate thousands of miles and scientists are mystified as to why there is individual variation in shark species. If Irschick and his team are able to create accurate 3-D models of living sharks, this may allow them to more fully test ideas about how sharks move, and eventually, how their body shape might affect movement patterns.