California Biophysicist Named MacArthur Fellow

John Dabiri, associate professor of aeronautics and bioengineering at the California Institute of Technology, is among the 2010 MacArthur Fellows. A biophysicist, he was recognized for investigating the hydrodynamics of jellyfish propulsion, which has profound implications for understanding evolutionary adaptation and such related issues in fluid dynamics as blood flow in the human heart. Host Michel Martin speaks with Dabiri about his achievements.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Beyond the Nobel Prizes being handed out this week, you may know of that annual ritual of award-giving nicknamed The Genius Grants. They are given to people in this country who think deeply, perhaps unlock scientific mysteries or create lavishly. They are as diverse in background as the disciplines they are recognized for.

Today in our Wisdom Watch conversation, we are bringing you the latest in a series of conversations we are having with those who have been awarded a 2010 MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called Genius Grants. Those grants come with a $500,000 prize to be used any way the recipients choose.

With us today, MacArthur fellow John Dabiri. He's a biophysicist, associate professor of aeronautics and bioengineering at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California. He was recognized for his work in theoretical fluid dynamics, evolutionary biology and biomechanics, and he studies jellyfish. And he's with us now to tell us more. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us and congratulations.

Mr. JOHN DABIRI (Associate Professor, California Institute of Technology): Thank you and thanks for having me.

MARTIN: I have to ask what you were doing and how it felt when you got that phone call.

Mr. DABIRI: You know, in fact, I got an email. I think I was the only one of the recipients to receive an email instead of a phone call because they had my cell phone number wrong so I received an email telling me to call them back and when I called them I got the amazing news and was just floored by it.

MARTIN: Well some people when they first get that phone call are tempted to believe that it's a prank. You didn't have that problem?

Mr. DABIRI: Well, in my case, because I got an email first, I actually thought maybe they just needed my help getting in touch with a colleague. I know several of my colleagues are very difficult to get a hold of and so I was happy to help. But it turned out that they were looking for me.

MARTIN: What do you mean you thought they were looking for a colleague? What is that? Is it like an attack of modesty? Do people normally call you for other people's phone numbers?

Mr. DABIRI: No, you would be surprised actually. In fact my advisor, my former Ph.D. advisor at CalTech is now a colleague of mine, and people do often ask me when they're looking for him. So it wouldn't be unusual.

MARTIN: How did you embark on the course of study that brought you the award?

Mr. DABIRI: I started studying jellyfish during a summer project when I was still in college. I came out to CalTech to work with Morey Gharib, who was my later Ph.D. advisor. And at the time I was primarily focused on studying rockets and jets as an engineering major at Princeton, and when I came to CalTech he said well let's take a trip to the aquarium to see if you can find something interesting there. And it was there that I sort of fell in love with jellyfish.

MARTIN: Why jellyfish? I mean a lot of us have our relationship with jellyfish but love is generally not one of them. I mean they're lovely to look at, but.

Mr. DABIRI: Right, something, certainly not to study and for me I think it was because on the one hand they looked very simple but there's a lot of interesting complexity there, especially when you start to study how they swim and the field of fluid dynamics, which tries to understand the physics of the water motion that they create.

MARTIN: What do you think we can learn from your area of enquiry?

Mr. DABIRI: Well we've already found out that these jellyfish tend to be very efficient when they swim, which means that on a given amount of energy they can go further than a lot of other animals can. And so as an engineer, my interest was in trying to understand why it is that such a simple animal is so efficient; and then to figure out whether we can take some of those ideas and apply them to engineering design, things like underwater vehicles.

MARTIN: Popular Science magazine named you as one of its Brilliant 10 a couple of years ago, and you're only 30. That seems like a lot of pressure. Do you feel that?

Mr. DABIRI: Well, you know I...

MARTIN: A lot of pressure to live up to?

Mr. DABIRI: I try not to think about it in those terms. Fortunately, I'm in a line of work where I really enjoy what I'm doing and along the way there have been accolades and I'm very grateful for them but at the end of the day I really just enjoy studying the animals and working with a lot of really great students at CalTech.

MARTIN: How did you become interested in science?

Mr. DABIRI: My father is an engineer, so even growing up, I always had exposure to some of the technical concepts that come along with engineering. I think I always thought I would end up working for Ford or GM or something like that. Growing up in the Midwest, that seemed like an honorable thing to do and a pretty common occupation. And it wasn't until I got to college that I realized that there's a lot more out there than just you know working for the local car company.

MARTIN: I hope you don't mind my asking that your name is Nigerian, yes?

Mr. DABIRI: That's right, yeah, the last name. My parents both came to the U.S. in the 70s and I was born here in the States.

MARTIN: The reason I raised this is that here in the U.S. - and I assume you are acquainted with this as one of the big goals of this administration is to get - and not just this administration but educators, many educators - is to get more people of color interested in the so-called stem field science technology, engineering and mathematics.

And there's a concern that this country cannot remain competitive if, particularly if, the numbers of ethnic groups like the Latinos, specifically continue to lag in these fields.

Mr. DABIRI: Right.

MARTIN: And I wanted to ask why you think and I understand that your story's not the one that many people experience. Your father was an engineer as you said and you grew up exposed to these issues but I'm just wondering if you have any thoughts about why this persists and do you feel you perhaps have some role in addressing this problem?

Mr. DABIRI: Well you know I think it starts at home first of all. You know having two parents there who encouraged me and in some cases forced me to study and to really take academics seriously, was very important at an early stage. And then going through school, the role of my teachers was always so important.

I remember my fourth grade teacher Cathy Kemp who really encouraged me in my classes. She encouraged me and I think made me believe that I was smart and so I took that and sort of owned that and tried to live up to the expectations that she had placed on me, even as a fourth grader.

And so we really want to grab hold of the imagination of the first graders and the second graders at a very early stage, and get them excited about becoming scientists, as excited as they are about becoming a fire fighter or the next rap star.

MARTIN: Did you ever confront the challenge that some kids of color tell us that they confront, of being viewed as, you know, not cool or a nerd because of your interest in science?

Mr. DABIRI: Yes, the phrase was typically acting white. You know, if you were someone who did your homework and spoke with correct grammar. I hope that that sort of attitude is waning. I don't know if it is. But that is something that I think discourages a lot of students. And so what we need are just more role models that show that you can be interested in science and engineering and still be a normal person who enjoys everyday things. You don't have to be a geek.

MARTIN: Do you feel a pressure to be one or you just want to, is that part of what you feel you have to do? Or do you not?

Mr. DABIRI: I do feel sort of a personal imperative. There are so many people who've invested their time in mentoring me along the way, that the least I can do is to be available to the next generation. And it's a tension there, because on the one hand, you know you want to spend your time doing research but it's important I think to take time away and invest it in other students.

And I try to do that mainly through my church. We have a mentoring program at our church out here in California called The Faith Foundation. And many of the students in the area are from under-represented groups, and so we hope that the impact of our program will be to continue investing in the next generation of scientists and engineers.

MARTIN: And speaking of investing, what will you do with the investment that's been made in you?

Mr. DABIRI: You know that's a very good question and one that I'm still thinking about and praying about. You know there's lots of plans that you make as a scientist, but getting $500,000 no strings attached is not one of those contingencies that you plan for. So that's why, honestly, I'm not sure yet. I do know a small portion of that will go towards swimming lessons, because ironically, as much as I enjoy studying the ocean, I can't swim.

MARTIN: Stop it.

Mr. DABIRI: Yeah, a few private lessons are due.

MARTIN: I think that those could be arranged. Congratulations.

Mr. DABIRI: Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: John Dabiri is a biophysicist at the California Institute of Technology, a 2010 MacArthur Fellow, a genius award winner. He was kind enough to join us from member station KPCC in Pasadena. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. DABIRI: Thanks again for having me.

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