By Laura Donnelly-Smith
It’s safe to say that GW Assistant Professor Pinhas Ben-Tzvi, director of GW’s Robotics and Mechatronics Laboratory, is pretty comfortable in his roles as a researcher and teacher. After all, he’s been doing both for years. But a superhero? That was a new role for Dr. Ben-Tzvi.
In a new online comic, he stars as Robotronman, a superhero who saves the day after an earthquake by swooping in with a swarm of small autonomous robots that can locate disaster victims underneath rubble. When a robot finds someone, it sends out a signal to the other robots and to rescue workers. Then, the small robots self-assemble into a larger robot capable of lifting heavy debris off the trapped victim.
In the comic, Robotronman wears a purple-and-black superhero suit with purple laboratory goggles. And he can fly, of course. Sure, it might seem a bit campy or silly at first. The engineering depicted in the comic, however, is 100 percent legitimate. The storyline is based on the actual research Dr. Ben-Tzvi and his students are doing in GW’s Robotics and Mechatronics Laboratory.
“I was one of the first to bring this robotics research to SEAS, and I have a strong team of students and postdocs who are working day and night to produce very high-quality research,” he said. “I’m proud to represent the school and show we’re doing great things.”
Robotronman’s adventure is the first installment in a new campaign called IMPACT, designed by GW’s School of Engineering and Applied Science to draw attention to the school’s research in an unconventional and creative way, said SEAS Dean David Dolling (who makes an appearance in the first comic).
“We recognize that most people receive a huge volume of email, magazines and other material that vies for their attention, and we wanted to develop something that would stand out from the crowd and cause people to stop and take a look,” he said. “I think IMPACT does that. It’s something different and fun, but it still accomplishes our purpose, which is to show people that SEAS faculty members are doing important research.”
Joanne Welsh, SEAS director of communication, originally conceived the idea of a SEAS “IMPACT team” of superheroes in 2009, when planning a brochure to celebrate SEAS’ 125th anniversary and draw the interest of both future students and potential donors and funders. The brochure she developed with graphic designer Brian Cox featured characters such as ThermalMan, a mechanical engineer; BioWoman, a biomedical engineer; and BinaryBoy, a computer scientist. After the 125th anniversary celebration was over, the superhero concept was put aside. But, Ms. Welsh said, she always hoped that it might be brought back to life.
This spring, working with a team that included SEAS web developer Adam Casper and social media developer Sam Smith, who is also a senior majoring in political communications, Ms. Welsh took the superhero idea several steps further. It seemed natural to put the superheroes online, where their engineering adventures could be more widely shared. And why use generic superheroes when there were so many real-life models on the SEAS faculty? Dr. Ben-Tzvi was an easy first choice.
“His research lends itself to a good dramatic storyline, and it was fairly easy to translate it for a general audience, so they could see the results of what he does,” Ms. Welsh said. “And I had a sense that he’d be a good sport about this, and would be willing to give it a try. Because we recognized this was unorthodox and out of the ordinary.”
Mr. Smith sat down with Dr. Ben-Tzvi to talk about his research and develop a preliminary script for the first comic. “He is someone who’s fantastic at expressing the intricacies of what he does in a way that makes sense,” Mr. Smith said. “In the four minutes it takes you to read the comic, you understand the basics of Dr. Ben-Tzvi’s research.”
Their most important concern in planning the comic was ensuring that the substance behind the storyline was sound, even when simplified. Mr. Smith came up with the basic story for Robotronman, then worked with Dr. Ben-Tzvi to ensure that the depiction of the robots and their function was scientifically accurate.
Mr. Cox decided to call in a professional illustrator, Cedric Hohnstadt, who had extensive experience with character drawings, to create the actual images. When the team saw Mr. Hohnstadt’s preliminary comic panels, they were thrilled.
“There was definitely a wow factor,” Mr. Casper said. “We were instantly impressed with the quality….It came together just as I’d pictured it in my mind, and while I’d been excited the entire time, I thought, ‘This is going to be really amazing.’”
Dr. Ben-Tzvi liked the images, too.
“I didn’t imagine they were actually going to make it look like me!” he said. “I was quite impressed by the artist. He depicted all my features in such a nice way.”
The “IMPACT Team” comic has two main target audiences, Ms. Welsh explained. The first is high school students—both those who are already interested in engineering and plan to apply to engineering schools, and those who like science and math but aren’t entirely sure where to go with their interest.
“We’re showing that this is important work that engineers do—it has real impact on people’s daily lives. Showing how the robotics research that Dr. Ben-Tzvi does can actually save lives is pretty inspiring,” she said.
The second target audience is people who are interested in SEAS research itself—administrators at other research institutions, faculty members’ peers at other universities, funding agencies and federal labs. “We want to also get the word out to that audience about the serious research we’re doing. The comic is just an entry point,” Ms. Welsh said.
It’s important that the whimsical nature of the comic strip is backed up by more traditional outreach tools, Dr. Ben-Tzvi said.
“IMPACT is a non-traditional tool, but I’m also using traditional tools like presenting at conferences, editing journals, winning grants from DARPA and publishing. We’re working really hard, and I think the unorthodox tools are another way of piquing people’s attention to look deeper and see the more traditional criteria of good research.”
In the several weeks since the Robotronman installment launched, the feedback has been very good, Mr. Smith said. “Since SEAS has entered the conversation on the web at a higher level, more people are talking about GW. Other universities and professional societies have mentioned GW online. That’s a big change from a few years ago.”
Retweets about the comic have come from Stanford, MIT and the National Society of Professional Engineers, as well as from SEAS students and faculty members.
A new comic installment is planned for the early summer, and future installments will be rolled out throughout the 2012-13 academic year, starting in the fall, Ms. Welsh said.
And who might be the next featured superhero? The team isn’t giving anything away right now.
“There are five SEAS faculty members who make cameos in the first comic,” Mr. Smith said. “They may or may not become superheroes. We’ve got to keep some secrets here.”