People You Should Know: Tonia Hsieh

Hsieh’s lab has received more exposure after its lizards made their way into the Temple Made commercial.

Tonia Hsieh studies basilisks, also known as “Jesus lizards,” and how they deal with environments they run through. Hsieh and her lizards were spotlighted in a Temple Made TV commercial last fall. | DUSTIN WINGATE / TTN
Tonia Hsieh studies basilisks, also known as “Jesus lizards,” and how they deal with environments they run through. Hsieh and her lizards were spotlighted in a Temple Made TV commercial last fall. | DUSTIN WINGATE / TTN

Some stars have surfaced recently from the Temple Made commercial campaign launched last fall, and they’re not all human. Tonia Hsieh, assistant professor for the biology department who works on comparative biomechanics, had the lizards she worked with featured briefly in a Temple Made TV commercial.

The Temple News caught up with Hsieh to find out why Temple Made featured the lab’s lizards and why she is researching reptiles.

The Temple News: What is the main focus of the lab?

Tonia Hsieh: The focus of my lab is really looking at how animals deal with environments that they run through, which is highly complex. So we’re looking at what we call “control systems,” which is pretty much the idea that animals operate as machines. The programs that basically run through the neurological system that allow us to adjust for unexpected situations in the environment.

TTN: Can you talk a little bit about the Temple Made campaign? How did the lizards find themselves in the commercial?

TH: Well I think with the lizards they are fairly unusual. It’s one of those things where often times when I talk to people in upper administration or elsewhere, they say, “Oh, you’re the person who’s working on lizards.” So I think it’s one of those things where, because there aren’t really that many people working on campus – I think I’m basically the only one – they are still very dynamic, interesting animals, and that was largely one of the reasons why Temple Made targeted this lab.

TTN: Can you give a brief summary of your experience with the Temple Made commercial?

TH: Actually it was a very quick day. So the group that was filming everything was remarkably efficient and a lot of fun to work with. They pulled a huge amount of equipment into my lab, and in about an hour and a half, they were done. They had us pull out a bunch of animals and go about a regular day of research.

TTN: Why do you think the Temple Made campaign incorporated the lizards in the commercial?

TH: I think people like to see animals. Honestly, I think for the most part it’s fun for people to see something like animals, especially when you see a great big green lizard running down a track. It’s exciting to see something like that.

TTN: Did you see more interest in your lab and department after the commercial aired?

TH: I have gotten a lot of comments from people from the standpoint of I have colleagues scattered throughout Pennsylvania, and I’ve gotten random emails from people within Temple, as well as outside the university, saying things like, “You know, I’m sitting in the movie theater about to watch ‘Lincoln’ and oh my gosh suddenly your face was on the screen in front of me with a lizard running at me!” So, it is impressive, the wide coverage that the Temple Made campaign has actually had.

TTN: What brought you to Temple University?

TH: There are several things that brought me to Temple. One of those things I do is inherently one where I cross a lot of boundaries. I’m often combining biological theorem concepts with computer science, mechanical engineering [and] physics, and we’re constantly working across all of these different areas. So the thing about Temple that I really appreciated was that it had this very open worldview to the idea of disciplinary research, and there was also a lot of support for young faculty coming in to launch their research programs to really promote this type of work that goes on between departments. What I really appreciate since arriving here is that people in different departments are very open for collaboration. I really do appreciate the fact that Temple has a very unique group of students who are very much engaged with this idea of learning and actually coming to class to learn material, which makes the teaching extremely rewarding.

TTN: What plans do you have for the future of your lab?

TH: A lot. One of the new areas that we are really moving into is this area of the voluntary loss of appendages. There really are animals out there that will be like, “Oh, don’t really want this anymore,” and drop a leg or something. What we’re really interested in is beginning to more explicitly fuse that connection between biology and robotics. For example, trying to build more robust robots that can deal with the changing conditions. I’d say the five- to 10-year scenario for the lab is really going to be moving a little bit more explicitly in the neural control side of things, as well as getting into the mechanistic side of robotics.

Dustin Wingate can be reached at

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.