Birds, bots, and batteries: MSE undergrad inspired by biology, nanomaterials

Daniel Bilezikian in the lab

He is studying genetic changes in southern capuchino birds, building glucose sensors for microrobots, and helping to design flexible batteries for wearable electronics.

Like many of his fellow undergraduates at Cornell, Daniel Bilezikian ’23 has discovered that majoring in materials science and engineering provides opportunities to pursue research interests in nearly limitless directions. The major’s flexible curriculum and collaborative learning environment have allowed Bilezikian to study everything from evolution to robotics to hi-tech clothing, all with the ultimate goal of improving life on Earth.

Seedeaters of a feather

In high school, Bilezikian developed an interest in engineered materials inspired by the natural world. That led him to choose Cornell and during his sophomore year, he began working with the Estroff Group – a research lab focused on bio-inspired materials synthesis. One of his first assignments was to help analyze the nanostructures of bird feathers.

 Iberá Seedeater
 Iberá Seedeater. Credit: Sheela Turbek. Provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

“I personally love bird photography, so the idea of looking at nanostructures and designing new materials, all while taking photos of bird feathers, was really a perfect match for me,” Bilezikian said.

Bilezikian was stepping into a bit of a mystery. The feathers he was being asked to analyze came from southern capuchinos seedeaters, a small South American bird with an unusually wide variety of plumage colors and songs, despite little genetic variation among species. Why were capuchinos diversifying so quickly? And could materials science help provide an answer?

Bilezikian began collaborating with Leonardo Campagna, a senior research associate at Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology, by examining feathers under different optical and electron microscopes to see if changes in plumage color correlated to any structural changes.

Feather microscopy
Feather microscopy captured by Daniel Bilezikian.

“At the microscale you can start to see the individual cells and the way that they differentiate. So a lot of the work that I was doing was also looking at the biology of how these cells grow, what chemical factors fall through them, and the way that the individual pigmentary grains are arranged.”

Bilezikian’s work culminated in a report providing a nanostructural analysis of the feathers, giving scientists a new tool to help link genetic factors to the structural elements of feather color. He is now working with another student to collect three-dimensional CT scans of feathers' nanostructures.

Cornell’s tiniest robots

Only slightly larger than the individual cells of bird feathers are Cornell’s smallest robots, the latest iterations of which are 100 to 250 microns in size. The tiny silicon circuits contain electrochemical actuators as legs, all powered by photovoltaics.

Microrobot about 5 microns thick and 40 microns wide – roughly the same size as microorganisms like paramecium. Credit: Provided by the Cornell Chronicle.

When Bilezikian learned that the research team, which had been developing the robots for several years, was exploring ways to add more capabilities to them, he sought to join the research group of Paul McEuen, the John A. Newman Professor of Physical Science in the College of Arts and Sciences. The cross-campus collaboration was encouraged by Bilezikian’s materials science and engineering advisor.

“The research is very much materials based,” Bilezikian said, “because when you’re at that scale, you're limited to a few components that can work in unison. Every material you pick is essential.”

The family of microrobots have so far been able to crawl, swim and fold, and the latest versions can even walk autonomously. For Bilezikian’s part, he’s helping to develop a glucose sensor, which could one day give the microrobots the ability to work in medical settings.

“The properties of these different materials define the function of the sensor,” Bilezikian said. “The glucose sensor is on the same scale and should be able to integrate with a lot of the programs that the team has worked on already.”

The team working on the microrobots includes engineers from a number of different fields, who envision the microscopic devices one day tracking bacteria, sniffing out chemicals, destroying pollutants, or helping to conduct microsurgery.

3D-printed elastic batteries

A third research project brought Bilezikian across the Atlantic Ocean to London, where he spent the past summer investigating 3D-printed elastic batteries for wearable electronics.

Bilezikian in lab
Daniel Bilezikian measuring electrical conductivity of electrode formulations. Credit: Provided by Daniel Bilezikian.

His interest in wearable electronics is partly inspired by an idea to create a hardware device for his microrobot glucose sensors to communicate with, but also by the general desire for more functional wearables.

“For many wearables, the batteries are very bulky, they're toxic, and they're dangerous if they're punctured,” Bilezikian said, “so we're trying to develop batteries that are flexible and that you can print out of non-toxic components directly on fabric.”

Bilezikian pursued this research interest through the International Research Opportunities Program, an eight-week opportunity in which Cornell students spend a summer conducting research at Imperial College London or one of its partner universities.

3D printed parts
3D printed, elastic components of aqueous zinc-ion battery. Credit: Provided by Daniel Bilezikian.

Working in the materials science and engineering lab of Cecilia Mattevi, Bilezikian formulated and tested the mechanical and electrical properties of an aqueous zinc-ion battery composition, printing it on different material substrates, including fabrics, to gauge its potential as a battery for wearable electronics.

“I'm inspired by the intersection between biology and nanomaterials,” Bilezikian said. “In the Estroff Lab, it was very much biology and looking at the nano structures, and at the McEuen Group I'm making these nano devices for biology. At Imperial I was working on these devices that are for humans, so it's all just trying to bring those ideas together.”

Research abroad opportunities

Whether Cornell students eventually work with professionals or clients from other countries, accept an overseas assignment with a multi-national company, or teach at a university outside of the United States, their professional opportunities are increasingly global. There are a variety of options available for materials science and engineering students interested in studying abroad. For the latest, visit the Cornell Engineering study abroad website. In addition, the Office of Global Learning manages hundreds of programs for Cornell students and can assist in finding an experience that meets the needs and interests of each student.

The International Research Opportunities Program with Imperial College London is a new addition to Cornell’s roster of study abroad opportunities, and is ideal for materials science and engineering students because of its summer schedule.

Said Bilezikian: “I had always wanted to study abroad and take some time out of the country, but the materials science curriculum can be a bit tight with all the classes that we have to get in. But this summer program gave me an opportunity to go abroad and didn’t interfere with classes. It really gave me an opportunity in a way that I didn’t have to make any other sacrifices.”

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