Dr Laura Margheri, who was recently nominated by RoboHub as one of the “25 women in robotics you need to know about”, looks back on her cross-disciplinary career so far.

At the Aerial Robotics Lab at Imperial College London, as well as being a research associate I also held the position of programme manager for research. This sort of dual role is becoming more and more strategically useful in academic settings. Drawing on scientific, technological, and managerial skills, a post doc/research associate and programme manager for research not only focuses on research activities, but also supports the project coordinator and other researchers in developing new ideas and initiatives, identifying funding opportunities, creating partnerships, and writing new project proposals. Anyone taking on this challenges needs to be very familiar with cutting-edge science and technology, keeping an eye on current and future trends, to have an excellent knowledge of funding programmes and different research groups.

I have found that projects funded by the EU’s Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) programme have been especially helpful to me in developing the skills needed for a new type of career profile in a research context: a multi-disciplinary mindset and an enthusiasm for international community-building.

Multi-disciplinarity and cross-fertilisation are essential

My cross-disciplinary education and knowledge of how to transfer knowledge between research groups began with the OCTOPUS project. Funded under the FET Proactive scheme, the mission of OCTOPUS was to understand the secrets of the octopus and to develop new design principles and technologies for soft robotics. OCTOPUS was an opportunity to work as an engineer together with pure scientists, to study how to fuse together the beauty of biology and engineering, to discover how to use approaches from to inform biological studies and, in reverse, how to translate biological insights into new design principles for innovative robotics technologies. Several interesting biological and engineering discoveries resulted, demonstrating how important it is for researchers in pure science and engineering to work together to advance scientific discoveries and innovation.

Consolidating scientific communities

As the OCTOPUS project came to an end in 2013, soft robotics was becoming more and more popular worldwide, with an increasing number of research projects funded across Europe, the US and Asia. But the field was still in an emerging phase, with a community of research groups that was still  scattered, and at risk of losing the gains it had already made. This was the motivation behind the proposal for a Coordination Action dedicated to soft robotics called RoboSoft, funded under the FET Open scheme. For three years, RoboSoft was the point of reference for researchers working in the field of soft robotics and allied disciplines. A FET Open Coordination Action was a perfect combination of mechanisms and tools to support an emerging, risk-taking research community.

RoboSoft was a unique environment for creating mechanisms for interactions across a broad range of disciplines, establishing collaborations, supporting the creation of roadmaps in robotics science and engineering, and promoting training for pioneering teams of young researchers.

Visionary thinking and support for multi-disciplinary communities are fundamental

As the number of research groups working in soft robotics has greatly increased, and the impact of scientific and technological results is more visible, this methodology is becoming more and more recognised and used within the robotics community in general, and specifically for the development of a new generation of more sustainable robotic solutions.

As I have recently started a new journey of scientific challenges and research activities in bio-inspired soft robotics with the Center for Micro-BioRobotics of the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (Italian Institute of Technology), I am happy to know that FET is once again part of my scientific life, with a new FET Proactive project, GrowBot, that started in January 2019.

As we work towards a sustainable robotics, there needs to be continuity in the mechanisms that support inter-disciplinary research, educate people on how contribute to and benefit from other disciplines, and become life-long learners and developers of effective technology solutions.