Why you should care

Because sometimes big solutions can come from the unlikeliest places.

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The first time John Dabiri told the U.S. Navy that he could create more efficient underwater vehicles using jellyfish, they laughed. Until a year later, when he had $1.3 million in the bank to do exactly that.

It turns out that understanding these little floating blobs is more complex than it seems. Complex enough for the most talented scientists in the world. By studying how jellyfish propel themselves and building real-life models from algorithms of their movement, Dabiri has learned some rather interesting stuff, like how to detect heart failure years in advance and how to build unmanned submarines that, according to the Navy, are 30 percent more efficient. What he does has a poetic name: bio-inspired engineering; in this case, using the physics of swimming animals to solve big human problems. Jellyfish have survived for over 500 million years and lived through mass extinctions, Dabiri says, so they must be doing something right.

The secrets of the jellyfish might also yield some crucial ideas in oceanography. Understanding their motion could be critical to “determining the basic biodiversity of the oceans themselves,” says Frank Fish, professor of biology at West Chester University. Before Dabiri, “nobody paid attention” to the idea that marine animals could cause ocean mixing, just like currents, says Morteza Gharib, vice provost of research at Caltech.

Dabiri is frighteningly young — 35 — and boasts a predictably well-studded résumé: undergrad at Princeton. A professor at Caltech by 24. At 28, he was tenured, and five years ago, at 30, he got a surprise phone call informing him he won a no-strings-attached MacArthur Genius Grant for $500,000. By 34, he was named Caltech’s dean of undergraduates. Just this year, Stanford poached him and now he has a lab under construction with his name on it … complete with a jellyfish tank. When I asked him what his favorite “most”/“best”/“rock star” list was — out of the many that he’s been named to — he got a twinkle in his eye and said the 50 Sexiest Scientists.

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John Dabiri started seeing jellyfish movements in mathematical terms; it launched a career path.

Source Alex Washburn / OZY

This is no nerd, though; he’s the kind of scientist who refers to his college friends as his “buddies.” Raised in small-town Ohio (you can smell the wholesome), he attended Baptist school, graduating with a class of 29. As you’d imagine, the school wasn’t exactly a beacon of scientific enlightenment — they taught what he calls a “wrong version” of evolution. At Princeton, Dabiri avoided biology altogether because he thought it was “stupid.” (He didn’t shed his faith, moving easily today between the labs of Stanford and church, where he met his wife when they were both camp counselors.)

He applied only to Princeton, where he wanted to study helicopters and rockets. He got in, and his high school biology teacher told the class below him he got in for being Black. But he has far more champions than haters. Michael Littman, a professor in mechanical and aerospace engineering and Dabiri’s college academic adviser, calls him “one of the most memorable students I’ve had in 35 years.” It was the first day of his first summer research grant at Caltech when Gharib, his research adviser, sat him down in front of a tank at the Long Beach Aquarium. Dabiri remembers being annoyed that he was being shown jellyfish — where were the sweet jets? But soon, something clicked: He started seeing jellyfish movements in mathematical terms, and his aquatic love affair began.

Dabiri’s world is small — some 30 or 40 engineers use robot tuna or sea lion flipper robots to study fluid dynamics. James Lighthill pioneered the movement in the 1970s, but the modern discipline has its roots in the late 1990s and early 2000s. And he’s not purely beloved; some in his field think his work is too simplistic, calling jellyfish a silly pet project. His more recent work modeling wind turbines after schools of fish, in diamond formations, has at least one serious critic. Mike Barnard, a senior fellow at the Energy and Policy Institute, says Dabiri “mischaracterizes” the efficiency of a vertical egg-beater-style wind turbine. Dabiri’s turbines are set up in a group like a school of fish, but Barnard says spacing in traditional wind turbines isn’t a bad thing — it allows for farming on empty land, for example. He says those who really understand the land-use equation think of Dabiri’s wind work as “quaint.”

Either way, the fact that Dabiri’s sprinted through his career makes it all the more important that he do something new now. His plan? Focus on students and on getting his work “in the hands of people who need it.” That means on-the-shelf access to the heart-failure detection system or small-scale wind farms in India. He’s working with a 70-person village in Alaska to reduce dependence on hyper-expensive diesel. And he won’t forget the jellyfish: Next up is inserting chips in their “brains” to control their movements.

But what really keeps Dabiri up at night is the next generation of scientists. On the first day of the annual American Physical Society Division for Fluid Dynamics conference, Megan Leftwich, an assistant engineering professor at The George Washington University, remarked to Dabiri that she had to run to the women’s lunch. Dabiri said there should be a lunch for Black scientists. “John,” she said, “you can eat lunch by yourself any day.”

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