Background photo featuring Sabrina and the robot test arm.

Student Spotlight: Sabrina Vlk


Sabrina Vlk, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student, first discovered her passion for control theory and robotics when she started working in the Cooperative Autonomous Systems Lab with Professor Venanzio Cichella in the Fall of 2023. This passion has only continued to grow with her current involvement in the soft robot octopus project. Sabrina’s involvement in the project is made possible by Professor Cichella’s involvement in the BUSRE program, a collaborative effort between the PPC and the Office of Undergraduate Research to provide funding for faculty in order to compensate undergraduate research assistants.  

A team of undergraduate, graduate, and PhD students are currently working alongside faculty in the engineering department to develop a soft tissue robot octopus. The main application of the technology developed through this project will be on a robot intended for deep sea exploration. Each team member has a unique responsibility and area of specialization regarding the robot's development. They also collaborate with the SMMS (Smart Multifunctional Material Systems) Lab, also within the College of Engineering, to develop the artificial muscles of the robot.  

Sabrina’s role is to develop a test arm for the robot’s movements with the goal of elongation, compression, and rotation. Achieving this will allow for natural movement and enable the octopus to move around the seabed without disturbing the environment and creatures around it, thus obtaining better camera footage of the deep sea. In addition, Sabrina is working on addressing the underwater aspect of the robot by researching ways in which it can be made waterproof and resilient enough to withstand the immense pressure of the deep sea.  

Although she is still an undergraduate, Sabrina is already on track to pursue a PhD in Mechanical Engineering with this project as the focus of her work the entire way. In the future, her continued work will expand to include controls development and the creation of mathematical algorithms that will allow the device to achieve complex tasks. For her work on the project thus far, Sabrina recently won the Excellence in Undergraduate Research Award which will offer her scholarship to travel to a conference within the academic year and an office of undergraduate research fellowship. 

“I really appreciate the work I’m able to do in the lab because it offers a different perspective and learning experience from the traditional classroom setting,” Sabrina said of her time working in the lab with Professor Cichella and the rest of the team. “This project gives me independence to work through real problems and exposes me to a higher level of research.”