A Robot That, Really, Can’t Do Much (Yet)

Wanjin Li, SEAS ’25, Vernon Hills, IL


What a fancy buzzword that would incite many to imagine a miniscule yet extremely powerful device that can achieve so much not despite its size, but with the added strength of the nanoscale. Instead of a huge and scary monster machine that scans your whole body image, this tiniest robot can literally swim across your bloodstream and pinpoint exactly where in your body did things go wrong; instead of ingesting some bad-tasting medicine and having to bear through the painful side effects, the injection of a hundred nanorobots can combat viruses and infections on their own and cause virtually zero pain… 

These are all wonderful imaginations, and the exact expectations of the world I’m diving into when I first reached out to Dr. Miskin, the Principal Investigator of the Miskin Lab of Nanorobotics. However, throughout the work that I’ve been doing this summer at the lab, I gradually unmasked the true process behind conducting such ground-breaking research: the accumulation of small, insubstantial, yet steady progress.

Contrary to the cool image of nanorobots that’s been living in my head rent-free since high school, the nanorobots I worked on this summer are simple and, in a way, primal in their functionalities. Unlike the robots we typically see in a Sci-Fi movie who are manipulated by advanced algorithms or even artificial intelligence, our nanorobots are still in their “crawling all over the place” stage. Controlled via various determined LED-light patterns, the robots can turn left, right, walk forward or backward. And… Well, that is pretty much it. Nevertheless, simply makingthese cell-sized robots integrated with CMOS electronics move took years of trial and error of several teams at universities all over the U.S. 

Thanks to Penn’s Career Services Summer Funding, I was able to spend the summer after my freshman year in Philly, diving deep in my first research experience with the Miskin Lab in the Singh Center for Nanotechnology.

My job, in this grand course of nanorobotics research, is to streamline the process that researchers can use to program a predetermined LED-light sequence into the light source that can then actuate the nanorobots. Such a process, if successfully implemented, can be a huge time-saver for researchers to study and improve the actuation of these robots. Previously, if someone wanted to set up a certain LED pattern to examine the robots’ behavior, they had to manually input the time intervals, light intensity, and their variations on the light source itself. While it’s not the end of the world, it could be virtually impossible for researchers to, say, manually enter a light pattern that includes tens of thousands of time stamps and different light intensities for each of their experiments. Therefore, my goal was to set up a software program that takes in a predetermined light intensity vs. time graph and executes exactly as so in the light output.

It is indeed a small change, but it has the potential to be adopted by the peer institutions and labs working on the same nanorobot prototype. Although our nanorobots really can’t do much yet, with each small step that attempts to understand the behavior of these little ones and design new ways to make them a tiny more useful, the future of nanorobotics is just ahead. 

With this invaluable first research experience of life, I am more excited than ever to apply the knowledge I learned and skills I acquired this summer to future opportunities that come my way.

This is part of a series of posts by recipients of the 2022 Career Services Summer Funding Grant. We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they spent their summer. You can read the entire series here.

By Career Services
Career Services