Montana State University doctoral student Cailin Casey is pictured last week in the lab where she studies the mechanics of insect flight. Casey has been awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

BOZEMAN — From the world’s first airborne insects to today’s bees and moths, nature has spent an estimated 400 million years developing and fine-tuning the mechanics of fluttering flight. Now a Montana State University researcher is using high-tech methods to see how the small flyers could inform advances in engineering.

Cailin Casey, a doctoral student in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering in MSU’s Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering, studies an unassuming part of the insect exoskeleton that’s capable of flexing with astounding speed and precision to make wings beat hundreds of times per second.

That work is getting a boost after Casey was awarded a sought-after Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation in March. The award comes with a three-year annual stipend of $34,000 plus $12,000 to cover educational expenses.

“This gives me more freedom to pursue new discoveries as they come up,” Casey said, adding that the fellowship also frees up time for sharing her research with K-12 students through various outreach programs as well as opens doors for international study to broaden her research experience.

Having studied biology and Spanish as an undergraduate at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, making the leap last August to an engineering doctoral program in Montana was a challenge, especially amid the coronavirus pandemic, Casey said.

“She has really hit the ground running,” said Chelsea Heveran, assistant professor of mechanical engineering. “Given the circumstances, her recognition with this fellowship is even more meaningful.”

In Heveran’s lab, Casey uses specialized tools to precisely measure the thickness and stiffness of the wing-driving portion of the exoskeleton called the cuticle. Working with Mark Jankauski, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, she inputs the data into computer models that seek to show how the cuticle flexes to produce wing flapping. Jankauski won a $620,000 NSF grant last year for studying insect flight to potentially design improved flight systems for drones and other small flying machines.

“One thing that makes Cailin’s research stand out is how integrated it is, where she’s not only looking at this structure and understanding it at a microscale but also making these mathematical models,” Jankauski said. “I haven’t often seen it put together in such a holistic way. We’re really excited to be working with her.”

Casey said the motivation for her research came from being fascinated with biology as an undergraduate, when she researched proteins found in fungi. She wanted to go beyond simply understanding nature to using the scientific insights to solve problems. Working with Heveran and Jankauski has been a good fit, she said.

“I think there aren’t a lot of places where you could study this from so many perspectives,” Casey said. “Some labs might borrow data or collaborate with other researchers to mesh something together, but I can look at this from start to finish.” She sees that partly as an expression of MSU’s culture of interdisciplinary research, she said.

Jankauski said he’s looking forward to collaborating with Casey to study how evolutionary biology could help adapt the insect flight mechanisms into engineering applications. By understanding how insects evolved, the researchers could home in on which methods developed over longer periods of time and may, therefore, be more sophisticated.

“I really like that I get to wear different scientist hats, spending one week collecting experimental data and another writing computer code,” said Casey, who also volunteers as a mentor through the Child Advancement Project run by the local nonprofit Thrive. “I enjoy that I have a lot of variety and can gain a lot of different skills.”

“I love her open-mindedness,” Heveran said of Casey, “and how she sees the bigger picture about how biology and engineering can intersect.”