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Tony Swanson and Kellan O’Connor

Lights, camera — engineering!

McCormick graduate students make their reality TV debut

Mechanical engineering graduate students Kellan O’Connor and Tony Swanson are no strangers to creating devices in the lab, but now the two bring their engineering skills to Animal Planet’s new reality TV show Chasing Nature. The program draws some of the top engineering students from across the country with the challenge of simulating one of nature’s wonders through modern technology.

O’Connor and Swanson responded to a request for applicants from the producers of the show. After reviewing the students’ résumés, the producers invited O’Connor and Swanson to an on-camera interview during a visit to campus. Weeks later, both students received word that they had been selected for the show.

Produced by Beyond International, Chasing Nature is filmed in Australia. Swanson and O’Connor were flown from Chicago to Sydney for separate five-day filming sessions. Before they arrived they had not been given any information regarding their challenge or even the concept of the show. Once they arrived they were given the task of replicating a distinctive animal characteristic through mechanics. After the teams built a device, they had to test it on a larger, human scale.

Swanson’s team was asked to replicate the unique talent of the archerfish, which spits a stream of water to knock its prey off of branches and into the water. The team had to create a cannon that would knock human “prey” off a platform from a distance of 30 feet. To succeed, they had to be accurate on at least 40 percent of the attempts.

The group succeeded in building the cannon but had difficulty testing the device without harming their teammates on the platform. Unlike the archerfish, they were interested in the safety of their prey.

Working with the special-effects team, who helped coordinate the stunts, was a highlight for Swanson. “The special-effects guys were amazing,” he says. “They could do anything. Their knowledge and ability to create functional devices quickly was amazing. In terms of prototyping, they’re the best.”

O’Connor’s team worked to replicate a dolphin’s ability to jump impressive distances above water. They used a barge with a specially design rig to launch team members out of the water while pulling them forward. The group then devised ways to improve the distance their colleagues could be flung. By modifying a wetsuit using silicone and neoprene, O’Connor and a teammate created a suit that resembled the tail of a dolphin and improved buoyancy and limited drag in the water.

As if these engineering challenges were not enough, capturing it all on camera added further complications. “There are a lot of interruptions, and sometimes you have to shoot things multiple times,” Swanson says. “It was tough to get a lot of work done.” Adds O’Connor: “It was hard to get into the TV frame of mind because we had never done it before. All of the interviews on the show take 15 minutes to do, even though they air as five-second segments. There’s a ton of editing.”

Since their teammates were selected from some of the top engineering schools in the country, including MIT, Stanford, and Cornell, O’Connor and Swanson found working with their graduate student counterparts a highlight. “Our team was great, and I’m still in touch with them,” O’Connor says. “Not everybody lucks out to end up with a team that’s so close.”

Editor’s note: Swanson’s episode aired in January, but at press time the show was on hiatus and O’Connor’s episode had not been scheduled.