Research Doodles: Pushers and Pullers

by Michael Mullaney on February 3, 2012

Here’s an obvious statement: science and engineering research topics can be challenging to understand. When you drill down deep into a discipline, the concepts, lingo, and implications can get very esoteric very quickly.

Now here’s something you may not have previously thought about: as trying as it is to understand certain research topics, it’s even trickier to explain the stuff. And explaining it in a way that clicks with non-scientists and non-engineers? It can be a Herculean task. But our professors are always up to the challenge.

As I travel around campus to  meet with the Institute’s peerless engineering faculty and learn about their research, there are a few constants I can count on. First, our professors are undoubtedly the nicest people in the world. Second, they’re invariably happy to take the time to walk me through their work and answer all of my questions. Third, they will always, always, always craft a doodle or draw a sketch to further my understanding of their research. Not only are sketches fun, they can help to distill the essence of a research project into something familiar. Seeing it on paper can expedite the “A-ha!” moment when a new concept or idea clicks into place.

Up above is a doodle that was sketched by chemical engineering professor Patrick Underhill, in an interview that led to this news story. He was explaining that in the realm of microorganisms, there’s a stark difference between pushers and pullers. Pushers, like the ulcer-causing bacteria H. pylori, propel themselves forward with their long helical filaments that train behind them. On the other hand, pullers like green algae propel themselves by performing a microscopic breast stroke with their pair of forward-facing filaments. The key takeaway is not the difference between the two groups, but a similarity: both create flows and make waves when they swim.

Look at the sketch again, and you’ll see it all there in pencil and paper.