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Mechanical Menagerie


Portrait of Alexis Noel sitting in front of a table in the Invention Studio

Alexis Noel, Ph.D., Mechanical Engineering, Hu Laboratory for Biolocomotion. Photo: Rob Felt.

By Laura Diamond

Alexis Noel is a Ph.D. student in Georgia Tech’s Hu Laboratory for Biolocomotion, led by David Hu, an associate professor of mechanical engineering. Noel’s research on adhesion and gripping with soft tissues is at the intersection of fluid mechanics, solid mechanics, and biology. She’s also a leader in the Invention Studio, the Institute’s student-run makerspace.

You received a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Georgia Tech and are close to finishing your Ph.D. Why did you come and stay at Georgia Tech?

I’m a lifer. I started as an aerospace engineering major. I got my pilot’s license in high school and was really into engines and designing cool planes and thought that would be my life. My first year in college I realized maybe aerospace wasn’t the best fit because I’m more of a hands-on learner. I made a lot of friends in mechanical engineering and heard about their cool classes where they built robots. I did an internship in NASA after my freshman year and I did a lot of mechanical engineering there, so I switched my major and kept aerospace as a minor. I love mechanical engineering, both the hands-on building and the community.

I met David Hu and heard about the work in his lab, and it blew my mind. I had no idea mechanical engineers could work with animals.

A macro shot of a plastic surface with short, hairlike protrusions

Noel made this 3-D cat tongue (at four times the scale of the real thing) in the Invention Studio at Georgia Tech. Photo: Rob Felt.

Describe your current research.

I’m really excited about my cat research. I watched my cat, Murphy, lick this soft, plush microfiber blanket and his tongue got stuck. After I laughed and helped detangle him, the scientist in me wondered why this happened.

We had a cat tongue in the freezer in the lab, and I did some tests and scans and found out cat tongues have these little micro hooks on the surface that look just like tiny claws. We found these little spikes are really good at detangling because the tip can actually pierce tangles, and as the tongue spine rotates, it can tease apart any tangles.

What’s the next step with the cat research?

We have a provisional patent, and we’re hoping to develop some really cool technologies with it. The obvious use would be hairbrushes for humans or pets that are really good at detangling. But it could be anything from carpet cleaners to new, novel ways to grab rocks in space.

How did you do some of this research?

My hobby is 3-D printing, so I created a 3-D cat tongue about four times the scale. I made it in the Invention Studio.

I’ve been going to the studio for about six years now. I love it. It’s a unique place. Besides the amazing equipment there, it’s the students who make the space special. It’s this collection of really passionate, interesting students all coming together to build and invent and tinker and teach one another.

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