When Curiosity Did Not Kill the Cat

A child’s curiosity on why the feather grass awn swirls and un-swirls throughout the day became a research publication

As a young child back home in Macedonia, Panče Naumov used to collect the awns of feather grass from his backyard as decorations for the house.

Naumov noticed how the awns “swirled and un-swirled over time, day and night, as the humidity in the room changed.” He was fascinated and spent hours wondering about this curious phenomenon without getting any answers.

Fast forward a few decades later. As an associate professor of chemistry at NYU Abu Dhabi, Naumov was working with his research group on smart materials inspired by nature when this childhood memory came rushing back. It prompted an experimental setup to investigate the mysterious behaviors of the feather grass awn.

Reversible Drilling of Feather Grass Awn

Feather grass awns in Naumov’s materials research laboratory at NYU Abu Dhabi.

Using electron microscopy, Naumov said the team discovered “how evolution has perfected a natural system to harness energy from something as trivial as day and night changes in aerial humidity for dispersion and survival.”

Similar to other feather grasses that thrive on all five continents, the awn of a feather grass species called Stipa epilosa, has the capability to drill its seeds into the soil based on the humidity level in the atmosphere.  

When the awn of the Stipa epilosa senses humidity in the air, it untwists itself over the night. It twists again when the air is dry during the day, thus burrowing its seed deeper into the soil.

This discovery will help with research on smart materials where researchers will design and create artificial materials that can also convert energy “out of thin air” where the energy stored in variations of aerial humidity to perpetual mechanical motion.

A feather grass awn.

Naumov’s innate childhood curiosity not only resulted in a collaboration in the departments of  chemistry, biology, and physics, it also spearheaded the start of a research career for undergraduate student Alvaro Yanez, Class of 2019.  

Undergraduate As First Author

Alvaro Yanez, Class of 2019.

Although Yanez does not have much experience yet in the world of research, it did not stop him from being proactive. He got in touch with various professors and research labs to find out ways to get involved in research work on grass feather awns.

There’s a lot of personalized attention in this university and that was very beneficial for me.

Alvaro Yanez, Class of 2019

Through Assistant Professor in Biology Mazin Magzoub — Yanez’s academic mentor — Yanez found a break and was pulled into a collaboration between Magzoub and Naumov. The professors had been in discussion to come up with an interdisciplinary project. “It was an outstanding opportunity for an undergraduate student,” Yanez added.

The research project was initiated by Israel Desta, a graduate student, who has a background in mechanical engineering coupled with a keen interest in materials science research. After Desta’s research assistantship ended, Alvaro continued the research and completed the project in his junior year.

Being the driving force behind finishing the project, Yanez was given the first authorship title — a title given to authors who have the most direct contribution to the research presented in the paper.

Having an undergraduate student as the first author on the original peer-reviewed article in a scientific journal is an outstanding achievement and “also reflects the exceptionally high quality of the original research performed by undergraduate students at NYUAD,” Naumov said.

Summer Plans

While most NYUAD students head home for this summer, Yanez is staying in the UAE to work on another research project related to the human brain with Professor Dipesh Chaudhury.

Yanez has always been fascinated in understanding how everything works and is especially keen in understanding the human brain. He would like to study medicine and get into neurology.