SEAS shows off 'superhero' engineers

by Kelly Quinn

Pinhas Ben-Tzvi, a robotics researcher and engineering professor, looks over prints from the School of Engineering and Applied Science's online comic, which depicts him as 'RobotronMan.'
Media Credit: Cécile Schilis-Gallego | Hatchet Photographer
Pinhas Ben-Tzvi, a robotics researcher and engineering professor, looks over prints from the School of Engineering and Applied Science's online comic, which depicts him as 'RobotronMan.'

Even after Pinhas Ben-Tzvi transforms into his alter ego to save victims of an earthquake using robot technology, he still makes it back to campus just in time to teach his 12:25 p.m. class.

At least that’s the story in the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s unconventional marketing campaign launched April 10 to highlight professors’ real-world research through comic strips.

“I think this is a unique way to showcase the very advanced research we do in our labs in layman’s terms, so that current and prospective students – and other people in general – can see what we are working on in a more relatable manner,” Ben-Tzvi, an assistant professor of engineering and applied science, said.

“It is not like getting a brochure with some boring information,” he added.

Last week’s sketch chronicled the adventures of Ben-Tzvi, who doubles as both a mechanical engineering professor and a superhero with the alias “RobotronMan.” Along with other members of the “IMPACT” team of superheroes, he is called by Dean David Dolling – the man behind the curtain – to save the earthquake victims.

The school’s director of strategic communications and marketing Joanne Welsh said the storyboard was the brainchild of Sam Smith, the social media developer at GW, who is also a Hatchet columnist.

“We thought the idea would work, because it’s a lighthearted and kind of quirky take on research, which is normally presented in a pretty dry way,” Welsh said.

With the opening of the Science and Engineering Hall three years away, Welsh hopes the campaign will spread awareness about the school’s research, especially to prospective students considering engineering or computer science, as well as researchers from outside institutions.

Welsh added that the project’s intended audience includes “anyone who is interested in the research topic highlighted in the particular episode – in this case, robotics.”

She added that the cartoon-ish take on research would be “simply stretching the idea and trying to show students who might want to study engineering or computer science that they can do important work in these fields.”

RobotronMan is the first in a series of forthcoming cartoons, but Welsh said she does not know how often or how many of the cartoons will be released in the future.

For Ben-Tzvi, who is also the director of GW’s Robotics and Mechatronics Laboratory, the story of RobotronMan is not far off from his work at the engineering school. In the lab, he works on ways to use wireless communication between mobile robots to help people get out from under debris following natural disasters. After notifying each other once a person is found, the robots flock to that location to recover victims together.

Ben-Tzvi said his team is working toward breakthroughs in robotics and finding commercial ties to apply the technology for police and military operations, as well as for exploring other planets and hazardous sites.

Welsh said Ben-Tzvi, who has been at GW since 2008, was picked as the inaugural superhero in the series because his robotics research “lends itself to a good, dramatic storyline.”

Welsh declined to release the costs of the two-month-long project.

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