Radhika Nagpal

Fred Kavli Professor of Computer Science
School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering
Harvard University

235 Maxwell Dworkin
33 Oxford Street,Cambridge, MA 02138
rad at eecs harvard edu

Scientific American Guest Blog
The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or:
How I Learned to Stop Worrying
and Love the Tenure-Track Faculty Life.

Research Interests: My group is interested in engineering and understanding self-organizing collective systems; we investigate many topics on the border of CS and biology. Two main areas are: (1) Biologically-inspired multi-agent systems: collective algorithms, programming paradigms, modular and swarm robotics (2) Biological multi-agent systems: models of multicellular morphogenesis, collective insect behavior. For more about our lab: SSR website.

Short bio: I am a Professor in Computer Science, at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. I am also a Core Faculty Member of the Harvard Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, where I co-lead the BioRobotics Platform. Before becoming faculty, I spent a year as a Research Fellow in the Department of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School. I received my PhD and was a Postdoc Lecturer at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), as a member of the Amorphous Computing Group supported by the Bell Labs GRPW Fellowship. I am grateful to have received the Microsoft New Faculty Fellowship (2005), NSF Career Award (2007), Anita Borg Early Career Award (2010), and the Radcliffe Fellowship (2012). Most recently, I was named as one of the Nature 10: Top ten scientists and engineers, by the journal Nature (Dec 2014). I am also the author of a blog article on tenure-track life (7 year postdoc), the advisor for the Harvard Women-in-CS group (WICS), and a strong advocate for a nurturing and inclusive culture in science. Outside of research, I enjoy the arts (dance, music, and painting) and our Indian+Caribbean cultures with my husband and two kids.

Teaching: CS189 and CS289 Spring 2016

Contact: Fall Office hours Fridays 11am. You can also email me, and I will try to reply.
(note: I do not check email over the weekend).

Recent Press:
Nature 10: Ten people who mattered in science this year (Nature, Dec 2014)
The Gathering Robot Swarm (Kilobots, Science, Aug 2014)
Robots to the Rescue, Gazette (Termes Robots, Science, Feb 2014).
Exploring Collective Intelligence, Video by the Radcliffe Institute, Oct 2013

My Research and CV   |   SSR Research Group   |   Publications   |   Teaching   |   Women-in-CS   |   Robocup and Outreach   |   Art



Science Top 10: Our work on swarm robots was chosen by Science magazine for its special year-end issue: Breakthrough of the Year: Top 10 scientific achievements of 2014. Congrats to our research team and alums for making this happen! Radhika was also selected by Nature magazine for their top ten (Nature's 10).


Thousand Robot Self-Assembly: Fish gotta school, birds gotta flock, and robots gotta swarm! Our Kilobot (1024-robot swarm) is in Science Magazine, Aug 2014 demonstrating large-scale collective self-assembly through local interactions and without human intervention (Movie).


Termite-inspired Collective Construction Robots: In and on the cover of Science magazine (Feb 2014) along with a and lots of press! (perspective by Prof. Korb, Boston Globe, Nature News, NPR)

Radcliffe: Radhika Nagpal has been named a 2012-2013 Fellow of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Every year the Institute selects 50 leading artists and scholars.

Self-Organising Systems Research

Biological systems get tremendous mileage by using vast numbers of cheap and unreliable components to achieve complex goals reliably. For example, cells with identical DNA cooperate to form complex structures, such as ourselves, with incredible reliability in the face of cell death, variations in cell numbers, and changes in the environment. Emerging technologies have made it possible to create our own large-scale multi-agent systems, by bulk-manufacturing tiny computing and sensing agents and embedding these into materials and the environment. We would like to build novel applications from these technologies --- vast sensor-rich environments, robot swarms and reconfigurable modular robots, programmable materials. A key challenge is achieving the kind ofreliability and complexity that cells achieve:

  • How does one creat globally robust systems, from the cooperation of vast numbers of unreliable agents?
  • How does one translate desired global goals into the local interactions of vast numbers of agents?

My research interest is developing programming paradigms for robust collective behavior, inspired by biology. Developmental biology, how cells cooperate in tissues and multicellular organisms, can provide insights into how global self-repair and adaptation can be achieved through simple local behaviors. The study of social insects can teach us how to program cooperation and adaptation amongst mobile agents. Ultimately, the goal is to create a framework for the design and analysis of self-organising multi-agent systems. My group's approach is to formalize these strategies as algorithms, analysis, theoretical models, and programming languages. We are especially interested in global-to-local compilation, the ability to specify user goals at the high level and automatically derive provable strategies at the agent level. This methodology is applicable to a wide range of distributed multi-agent systems, from wireless sensor networks to modular and swarm robotics, and we pursue both theory and physical implementations of our work, especially in robotics.

My other research interest is understanding robust collective behavior in biological systems. Building artificial systems can give us insights into how complex global properties can arise from identically-programmed parts --- for example, how cells can form scale-independent patterns, how large morphological variations can arise from small genetic changes, and how complex cascades of decisions can tolerate variations in timing. I am interested in mathematical and computational models of multi-cellular behavior, that capture hypotheses of cell behavior and cell-cell interactions as multi-agent systems, and can be used to provide insights into systems level behavior that should emerge. We work in close collaboration with biologists, and currently study growth and pattern formation in the fruit fly wing.

Research Group:
For more detailed description of the projects we work on, see our SSR research group webpage

Selected Publications:

  • Programmable Self-Assembly Using Biologically-Inspired Multiagent Control, AAMAS 2002. (pdf)
  • The Emergence of Geometric Order in Proliferating Metazoan Epithelia, Nature, Aug 31, 2006. (pdf)
  • Self-organizing Desynchronization and TDMA on Wireless Sensor Networks, IPSN 2007. (pdf)
  • Automated Global-to-Local Programming in 1-D Spatial Multi-Agent Systems, AAMAS 2008. (pdf)
  • Self-Adapting Modular Robotics: A Generalized Distributed Consensus Framework, ICRA 2009 (pdf)
  • Control of the Mitotic Cleavage Plane by Local Epithelial Topology, Cell 2011 (pdf)
  • Kilobot: A Low Cost Scalable Robot System for Collective Behaviors, ICRA 2012. (pdf)
  • Flight of the Robobees, Scientific American, March 2013. (link)
  • Designing Collective Behavior in a Termite-Inspired Robot Construction Team, Science, Feb 2014.
  • Programmable Self-Assembly in a Thousand-Robot Swarm, Science, Aug 2014.

Selected Press:



  • Nature 10: Ten people who mattered in science this year, 2014
  • Science Top 10 Breakthroughs of the Year, 2014
  • Radcliffe Fellowship, 2012
  • Borg Early Career Award, 2010
  • Thomas D. Cabot Associate Professor Chair, 2009
  • NSF Career Award, 2007
  • Microsoft New Faculty Fellowship Award, 2005
  • AT&T Bell Labs GRPW Fellowship, 1995-2001


CS 189r: Autonomous Multi-Robot Systems
(CS189r Spring 2011-present, CS199r Spring 2009) Building autonomous robotic systems requires understanding how to make robots that observe, reason, act and coordinate. In this project-based course, we study this area in the context of a new project each year. In previous years, the focus has been on autonomous robot soccer, how to get robots to play adversarial games without human intervention. This course combines learning the fundamentals of robotics programming with AI and systems engineering for robotics.
CS 289: Bio-inspired Multi-agent Systems (previously cs266)
(Fall 04-08, Spring 2010-present) This class surveys the state of the art in biologically-inspired approaches to designing collective intelligence in diverse domains. Topics include: swarm intelligence, cellular automata and computing, and evolutionary algorithms, with applications to networking, optimization, and robotics. Class is based on reading and discussing research papers, and students undertake a semester-long research project.
Previous Courses taught at Harvard
CS182: Intelligent Machines: Reasoning, Actions, and Plans (Fall 2009, 2010, 2011)
CS51: Introduction to Computer Science II (Spring 2005, 06, 07, 08)
SB 301: Special Topics in Systems Biology (Fall 2005)
Courses taught at MIT, as a postdoctoral lecturer
MIT 6.042: Mathematics for Computer Scientists: Fall01-02, with Prof. Albert Meyer.(also on MIT OpenCourseWare)
MIT 6.978: Biologically Motivated Programming Technology for Robust Systems: Fall 2002. (final projects)
MIT 6.033: Computer Systems Engineering: Spring 2003, Recitation Instructor.
MIT 2004 IAP Course on Synthetic Biology, with Drew Endy, Tom Knight, and Pam Silver.

Undergraduate Clubs and OutReach Activities

Harvard Women in CS Club (WICS)
Harvard Women in Computer Science is a group dedicated to building a network of women in computer science accross Harvard - undergrads, grads, faculty, entreprenuers, technologists, and alums! We host regular social events, career events with companies, and try to connect with the larger CS happenings around Boston area. Visit our website to join the group and subscribe to our mailing list and facebook page.

Outreach Program
Our lab uses inspiration from nature to design computing and robotic systems. We enjoy presenting our work to K-12 students and getting them excited about science and engineering. We have several non-technical presentations and robot demonstrations that can travel to a local school or event, and we can also host short lab tours in our lab. Although we are a small lab, we try to do a few outreach events every semester and we are especially interested in reaching minorities that are underrepresented in engineering. You can read more about the events we have done on the webpage link. If you are interested in having students visit the lab, or us bringing a workshop to you, contact Radhika by email.
Robotic Futbol Club (RFC) Cambridge
RFC Cambridge is the Harvard-MIT undergraduate RoboCup soccer team. We took our first team of autonomous robots to play soccer in the Robocup US Open held at Georgia Tech (2006). Then they headed to Germany to compete in the International Robocup Competition!. Our very own RFC Members were even featured on CARTOON NETWORK! In 2009, we hosted the U.S Open Small-size Robot Soccer Competition at Hilles Penthouse, Harvard University. The Harvard College Engineering Society (HCES) is the umbrella undergraduate group aimed at promoting engineering and cross disciplinary collaboration on campus - i.e. We do COOL things. Come join us! Faculty Advisors: Radhika Nagpal, Robert Wood
Highlights video, 2007

iGEM Intercollegiate Genetically Engineered Machine Competition
Although I no longer participate in iGEM activities, happy to talk to any one who is interested in joining.
Each year many universities compete in iGEM --- to design, build and characterize genetically-encoded finite state machines. The challenge is to go from idea, to design, to DNA, to implementation (in cells) in 3 months! The Harvard Team consists of undergraduates from many different disciplines, and they have built many things from bacteria that can propogate a pulse, to dna structures that self-assemble. Read about it here: Gazette Article (Aug 25, 2005) and The New York Times (Nov, 2005); the Harvard iGEM 2006 team project on DNA nanostructures for drug delivery ( MIT Technology Review article); Harvard's 2008 team won gold with their bactricity project

ART, and Other Fun Stuff

As an undergraduate at MIT, I co-founded the MIT Bhangra Club and taught there for many years (1994-2004 website). During my time at Harvard, I have made a number of paintings, that you can see in My Art Album. These days I spend alot of my time with my husband and our two kids, who all also happen to like art, dance, robots, etc - Go figure!

The painting below ("Museum of Natural history") is based on a beautiful tree on Oxford Street right accross from the Harvard Museum of Natural History. The birds and animals are ones you'd find in New England, India, and Suriname. Acrylic on canvas. The other painting ("Riding the Dragon") is based on a tree on the banks of the Charles River, not far from the Esplanade. The third painting ("Losing ones self") is based on a tree and my time at Radcliffe.