Elio Challita 

Email: echallita [at] seas harvard.edu


I am a Schmidt Science Fellow Postdoctoral Researcher at the Harvard Microrobotics Laboratory with Professor Robert J. Wood.

I previously worked at the Bhamla lab at Georgia Tech where I studied how ultrafast invertebrates (Insects, hexapods, arachnids) grapple with fluid dynamics challenges to carry out essential biological functions (feeding, excretion, predator avoidance, etc.).

My research projects fall under three overarching themes: 

Keywords: Microfluidics, biomechanics, bioelectricity, electrophysiology, hydrodynamics, 3D printing, mathematical modeling, smart materials, rapid prototyping

Physics of living systems

Topics: Interfacial fluid mechanics, soft matter physics, and ultrafast biomechanics

We aim to uncover the underlying principles and limits of how living organisms across physical scales meet the challenges set by the physical world to fulfill their biological functions (e.g., locomotion, hunting, excretion, collective defense). Our research questions stem from curious observations in everyday life or exploratory fieldwork in remote areas (e.g., Peruvian Amazon, Costa Rican, and Panamanian rainforests). Our approach involves developing minimal mathematical models (e.g., oscillator models, linearized hydrodynamic models, scaling, asymptotics), physical and biological experiments (e.g., High-speed imaging, robotic analogs), and computations (e.g., computational fluid dynamics, finite element analysis). Ultimately, our goal is two-fold 1)  to answer questions such as 'how things function?' and 'why things are?' and 2) to develop novel bioinspired systems and materials to solve engineering problems.

Biological stations visited: 1) La Selva - Costa Rica ; 2)  Piro, Osa peninsula - Costa Rica ; 3) Barro Colorado Island (Smithsonian) - Panama ; 4) Finca las Piedras - Amazon Peru ;  5) Los Amigos - Amazon Peru

Selected Projects

Nasutitermes [Coming soon]

Unifying excretion laws from cicadas to elephants 


We examine cicadas' capability to jet fluids through small orifices, challenging fluid dynamics principles and offering insights into fluid excretion across species, with implications for ecology, evolutionary biology, and bioengineering. (Image credit: Tzi Ming Leong)

Fluid Ejections in Nature [In Press] 


We develop a fluid dynamics framework, based on dimensionless numbers that unifies the understanding of fluid ejection across various taxa, spanning eight orders of magnitude (Image credit: Tim Flach)

Droplet superpropulsion in sharpshooter insects 


We show how millimeter-sized sharpshooter insects exploit "superpropulsion" to catapult their droplet excreta (elastic projectile) at a higher speed than their stylus (actuator) and survive on an extremely poor diet.

Controlled Landing of springtails on the air-water interface 


We uncover the hydrodynamic principles that allow springtails (~1 mm) to control their landing at the air-water interface. 

Physics of finger snaps


We demonstrate that skin friction between fingers mediates the fastest movement a human can produce: the finger snap.

Ultrafast launch and arrest of slingshot spiders


We develop a mathematical model that explains how slingshot spiders can launch themselves at ultrahigh speeds (~130g) while being able to arrest their movement within a few milliseconds. (Image Credit: Lawrence E. Reeves)

Bioinspired/biohybrid engineering

Topics: stimuli-responsive metamaterials, biohybrid transducers, bioelectricity, lipid membranes, and ionic polymer metal composites 

From small stimuli-responsive biomolecules to large living systems, biological entities autonomously sense, respond, and adapt to their surrounding environment. This research theme aims to integrate biological systems with engineered systems to develop biohybrid smart materials for sensing, actuation, and energy conversion. Our methods include electrophysiology, water-in-oil/organogel emulsions, finite element modeling, electroactive polymers, and 3D printing. Examples of previous projects include developing 'cell membrane mimics' using synthetic lipid bilayers functionalized with membrane channels at the interface of water droplets in oil and using these biomembranes as a building block to create large autonomic and functional metamaterials with complex emergent properties.

Selected Projects

A skin-inspired soft material with directional mechanosensation


We develop a soft material capable of detecting external mechanical perturbations by encapsulating lipid bilayers functionalized with Large Conductance Mechanosensitive Ion Channel (MscL) channels in organogel.

Hydrogel microelectrodes for the characterization of lipid membranes 


We develop a hydrogel-based microelectrode to characterize lipid bilayers (10 - 30 μm) and transmembrane channels .

Encapsulating stimuli-reponsive droplet networks in thermoreversible organogel 


We develop a 3D printing method to encapsulate large and functional networks of biomembranes formed between pico-liter aqueous droplets in a self-supporting organogel. 

Reconfiguring droplet networks through sacrificial membranes


We experimentally and computationally (FEM) show that large connected assemblies of functional droplets may be reconfigured in various 2D and 3D geometries by rupturing selective membranes to achieve new emergent functionalities.

Frugal science and open-source hardware

Scientific hardware is the basis of many scientific discoveries. However, accessibility to scientific hardware is limited mainly due to its high cost. Frugal science and open-source hardware aim to increase the accessibility of scientific equipment and promote the democratization of scientific discovery by developing low-cost and alternative scientific tools. 

OpenCell: 3-in-1 DNA extraction device [In Press]

Perspective: Frugal science powered by curiosity


3D printing method for droplet-based biomolecular materials

Docking station and battery exchange mechanism for quadcopters

Ongoing projects (Collaboration with Undergrads and K-12)