Oh snap! Ultrafast snapping recoil of elastic materials

Elastic biological materials like tendon play a vital role in animal locomotion, yet their complexity makes their mechanical characterization challenging. These materials often have a highly non-linear mechanical response in which stress has a complicated dependence on the amount of applied deformation. Further, these elastic biological materials are highly rate-dependent due to complex dynamic relaxation processes. Traditional testing of elastic biological materials typically focuses either their large deformation behavior or their high-rate properties -- not both aspects simultaneously. But for ultrafast movements in biology, these materials experience both extremes at the same time.

In our work, we perform recoil experiments to characterize the high-rate, large deformation response of elastic materials. In a recoil experiment, a clamped material is first slowly stretched while measuring force and displacement to calculate the elastic energy stored in the material. Then the material is suddenly released from its clamped state, and the material recoils (retracts) back towards its unstretched original state. By measuring the recoil using high speed videography, we measure the dynamics of the elastic energy release, and ultimately, infer the high-rate and large deformation mechanical properties of the material. The details of how to successfully infer these properties from a recoil experiment are still largely unresolved, but steps towards this goal would enable the characterization of elastic biological materials to understand their unique properties during ultrafast movement.


Essay Prompt: What interests you about this research and what do you hope to get out of the research experience? Please also comment on whether you would like to do research in the spring for academic credit or during summer as a paid position on campus (or both).


Name of research group, project, or lab
Physics of Soft Matter Lab (PoSMLab)
Why join this research group or lab?

You will be part of a team of 6 HMC students working on a set of related projects at the intersection between physics, materials science, biology, and robotics. You will collaborate with other research groups in these disciplines across the country (collaborators at Duke, Carnegie Mellon, University of Hawaii, University of Massachusetts Amherst, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign), and you will get the opportunity to regularly present your work to a larger team. Collectively, we are working on understanding these ultra-fast elastic systems, which will have impact in the fields of evolutionary biology and micro-robotic design.


Representative publication
Logistics Information:
Project categories
Materials Science
Student ranks applicable
Student qualifications

This research is accessible for all academic levels and requires only some introductory mechanics and computer programming to start. 

Helpful coursework includes (but not requirements): Ph24, Ph50, Ph111; CS 5; E79, E86; BIOL101

The most important qualifications are a curiosity about the natural world and an appreciation for multiple scientific disciplines.

Time commitment
Spring - Part Time
Summer - Full Time
Academic Credit
Paid Research
Number of openings
Techniques learned

Some skills and techniques that you will develop include: data processing, mechanical properties measurements, high speed videography, scientific communication.

Contact Information:
Mentor name
Mark Ilton
Mentor email
Name of project director or principal investigator
Mark Ilton
Email address of project director or principal investigator
1 sp. | 0 appl.
Hours per week
Spring - Part Time (+1)
Spring - Part TimeSummer - Full Time
Project categories
Physics (+2)
EngineeringPhysicsMaterials Science