This story is part of a series of graduate profiles ahead of Commencement ceremonies.
To Henry Cerbone, Central America’s water-running basilisk lizard isn’t that far afield from the dogs, cats, bees, chickens, and snakes on his parents’ 13-acre farm in rural West Virginia.
Cerbone, graduating this spring from Harvard with both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, has been fascinated by all of them. Since an early age, his amazement at their capabilities — whether a bird in flight or a lizard that runs across water — inspired an evolution of pursuits from hunting tadpoles as a kid to creating a robotic model of a lizard foot in Robert Wood’s Harvard lab.
“I think that much of my life and my academic career at Harvard has been trying to take seriously — or to realize academically — this childlike intuition that animals are important, and we should pay attention to them,” said Cerbone. “And I think that one arrives at that through the sense of wonder that one gets from looking at them as a child.”
Cerbone, an Adams House resident, is the son of a philosophy professor from West Virginia University and a nurse midwife, both members of the Harvard Class of 1988. And he thinks that we can learn a thing or two from the living world as we design more sophisticated robots and that, in turn, robot design has a few things to teach us about the natural world.
“Almost anything that you’d like a robot to do in the world, an animal already does very well,” Cerbone said. “A refutation of that is that ‘Birds fly, and airplanes fly, and they have nothing to do with one another.’ But if you look at the structure of a bird’s wing and you look at the structure of an airfoil, you think about them very similarly, and they have similar design principles. So it’s not always straightforward — a copycat — but there’s a way of thinking about design and problem-solving that animals can show us that I think is really important.”
Sean Kelly, the Teresa G. and Ferdinand F. Martignetti Professor of Philosophy, is Cerbone’s adviser for a special concentration called the ontology of autonomous systems, which Cerbone created. It combines elements of philosophy, robotics, engineering, biology, and mathematics. Cerbone also earned a master’s degree in computer science along the way.
“He’s fantastic. He has a huge range of interests, but they’re focused in this really great way,” said Kelly. “He’s interested in these famously difficult philosophers, but at the same time, he’s a very serious mathematician.”
In designing the concentration, Cerbone spoke to 17 faculty members, asking their opinions on the disciplines needed to fully explore his interests. Since starting the work, he’s delved deeply enough in the various fields to have published papers in three of them. He also tackled a project for his senior thesis to create a robotic model of a basilisk lizard’s broad foot, which holds the secret to its ability to run on the water’s surface.
“He’s driven, very creative, very intelligent, and willing to take risks in terms of things to pursue, and combining things in interesting ways,” said Perrin Schiebel, a fellow in Wood’s lab who also advised Cerbone. “What he did was very challenging and he was willing to take it on even though it was going to be difficult and probably wouldn’t get completed to the level he would have liked. I was impressed that he was willing to pursue that anyway, with the understanding that we would learn something, we would make progress, and it would be successful even if it wasn’t successful.”
Outside of class, Cerbone worked as a photographer on campus and also had a column in The Crimson. Both Kelly and Schiebel said Cerbone’s passion for academics doesn’t preclude having a social life. In fact, Kelly said, conversation is part of how Cerbone does his work.
“He loves being around people. He loves talking with people,” Kelly said. “He does a lot of his intellectual work in conversation with others, is very generous helping others, is also super interested in learning from others. He brings people together around projects that he thinks are interesting or that he thinks other people will think are interesting.”
Though he did take part in several activities, Cerbone said his main extracurricular was working in the lab of roboticist Wood, the Harry Lewis and Marlyn McGrath Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences. And, though Cerbone said he spent a lot of time there, he also said he might have spent more, if he could have found any.
“I have this deep conviction that doing this kind of work is important and that these ways of thinking are important, important in the sense that they can help us interface with and enact various kinds of changes in the world,” Cerbone said. “But, as much as it frustrates me, I need to sleep and stuff, and one can only work on so many things in four years of undergrad.”
Cerbone will carry on his intellectual journey this summer, studying ants of the Pacific rim with a Japanese biologist and ecologist. In the fall, he will begin a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University, studying for a D.Phil. in biology, the result of evolving interests that have come to focus more squarely on the natural world.
Cerbone said he’s looking forward to being part of the Rhodes community, getting to know and work with bright people with an array of backgrounds and interests who are asking and answering potentially world-changing questions.
“I didn’t spend that much time, for better or for worse, doing deep analyses of where change and what kind of change should be enacted in the world,” he said. “But there are so many brilliant people, many of whom have been awarded things like the Rhodes Scholarship. That’s why I wanted to be a part of that community: to be around people who are asking those kinds of questions, but also answering those kinds of questions.”