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Leonard wins 'genius grant'

By Steven Schultz

Princeton NJ -- Naomi Ehrich Leonard, a Princeton engineer who invents mathematical theories that allow underwater robots to coordinate their own behavior like schooling fish, has been selected to receive a 2004 MacArthur Fellowship.

Naomi Ehrich Leonard


The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced that Leonard is among 23 scientists, artists, scholars and activists who will each receive a $500,000 no-strings-attached grant over a five-year period. The fellowships, known informally as “genius grants,” recognize people who have “shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits, and a marked capacity for self-direction.”

Leonard, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, specializes in a branch of engineering and applied mathematics called control theory. The field involves designing methods for influencing the behavior of a dynamic complex system — anything from a drug regimen that controls a disease process to software that drives a robot. In recent years, she has focused on the control of autonomous underwater vehicles that patrol the seas for long periods of time collecting data about ecosystems and ocean dynamics.

Much of Leonard’s work is inspired by living organisms, such as fish and birds, which coordinate their movements without any overall leader. “We want our vehicles to forage for data like a school of fish forages for food,” said Leonard, who collaborates with biologists and oceanographers as well as other engineers and applied mathematicians.

“She’s a truly visionary scientist and engineer,” said Maria Klawe, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science. “She has managed to create an interdisciplinary collaboration that brings together the best in engineering, control theory, oceanography and biology for groundbreaking research. She also is a role model to students as someone who takes basic science and applies it in very innovative ways to real problems facing the world.”


Onboard a research ship in Monterey Bay, Calif., in 2003, Professor Naomi Leonard (center) inspected one of the underwater vehicles used to collect data about the Pacific Ocean. She is pictured with two of her colleagues in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, graduate student Edward Fiorelli (left) and former research associate Ralf Bachmayer.

The vehicle systems that Leonard has helped design are giving marine biologists and oceanographers an unprecedented tool for studying hard-to-access environments for long periods and over wide spaces. The technology also may be applied to problems having to do with searching, surveying and mapping in the oceans.

Leonard is participating in a multi-institution collaboration called the Adaptive Ocean Sampling Network, which has been testing underwater vehicles. In August 2003, the group conducted a month-long experiment in Monterey Bay, Calif. The tests involved 5-foot-long underwater “gliders” that have no propellers or thrusters. The gliders suck in and expel water, making them sink and float in a saw-tooth pattern. The gliders have wings and fins that allow them to shoot forward and turn as they rise and sink. Some of the group is planning another month-long experiment for 2006 as part of the related Adaptive Sampling and Prediction project.

“I am grateful to my mentors and many collaborators who have been a constant source of inspiration,” said Leonard. “The excitement of what I’ve been doing does not come from the work of any one person, but rather from the combined perspectives of many people with different expertise and common interests who get together and build something much greater than the sum of its parts.”

Leonard added that she plans to use her fellowship money in part to deepen her knowledge of biology and ecology. “This is an incredible opportunity to immerse myself in other fields and move in new directions,” she said.

Leonard received her bachelor’s degree from Princeton in 1985. She returned to Princeton as a faculty member in 1994 after earning a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland.

One other Princeton alumnus also received a 2004 MacArthur Fellowship: John Kamm, a 1972 graduate from San Francisco, was recognized for his efforts combining business and human rights work in China. Building longstanding relationships and personal trust at many levels in Chinese society, Kamm has secured the release of many political prisoners and improved conditions for many others.