As an undergraduate, Bernny Ramirez ’18 was into earthworms — not for bait, but as a window to a better future. The physics major studied how worms move through different substances, and whether those movements might one day have important medical applications.
Ramirez’s research, in collaboration with Professor Arshad Kudrolli, is the basis for their co-authored article, “Burrowing dynamics of aquatic worms in soft sediments,” recently published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The article details the ways in which the worm known as Lumbriculus variegatus negotiates its way through sediment beds at the bottom of lakes and oceans. To replicate those conditions in Kudrolli’s lab, Ramirez observed worms as they wriggled through a glass tank full of transparent hydrogels. He used different size beads, ranging from 1 centimeter to 2 millimeters, to see how the worms’ movement changed as the substance changed.
The research merged Ramirez’s passions for physics, biology (his minor), and bioengineering, and helped him envision future uses of robotic worms in medical procedures or in the delivery of drug treatments.
Kudrolli, who analyzed the data, compares the human body to “a giant hydrogel,” adding that the National Science Foundation-funded worm study not only advances the fundamental science of locomotion but might one day figure into more efficient surgical techniques.
“Bernny really got this research off the ground,” he says. Ramirez is now studying in the NYU biomedical program. Kudrolli also cited the contributions of postdoctoral researcher Andree Panaitescu, who helped to gather preliminary data and design some of the initial experiments.