Those of us privileged enough to frequent aquariums have probably experienced the physical inability to move past the illuminated jellyfish enclosures. Something about their mesmerizing movements holds us captive. Most of us, however, admire the jellyfish, murmur incoherently about how majestic they are, and move on. John Dabiri, fortunately, is not most of us.
Born to Nigerian immigrant parents in 1980, Dabiri is an aeronautics engineer and the Centennial Chair Professor at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), with appointments in the Graduate Aerospace Laboratories (GALCIT) and Mechanical Engineering. He is widely known for taking inspiration from the living world to improve engineering. His overarching goal is to study the “successes and failure of biological systems and take that knowledge and use it to improve engineering systems.” He believes that there is unrealized potential lying hidden in nature that can be used to harness engineering solutions that would otherwise be dismissed because they are unorthodox and don’t conform to our expectations.
So, when Dabiri stared at an enchanting jellyfish, he saw beyond its beauty and set out to understand the efficiency of its movements. Becoming fascinated with their locomotion, he delved into the hydrodynamics of jellyfish propulsion. His lab developed technology to measure the flow currents the animals create as they swim in their natural environment. This allowed them to measure how much energy they expend to swim and how efficient they are. Dabiri became particularly interested in studying whether animals could be efficient yet effective swimmers. For this, he needed to model jellyfish movement. When they move, jellyfish create fluid vortex rings. These are donut-shaped vortices that consist of circulating water rotating around a closed loop. By mathematically analyzing these vortex rings, Dabiri was able to model the optimal vortex ring required for efficient movement. Understanding these vortex rings has implications for all sorts of processes that involve the movement of fluids, from blood flow in the heart and diagnosing heart failure to building efficient underwater vehicles.
Dabiri has continued to take inspiration from the ocean and applied the hydrodynamics of fish schooling to design wind farms that harvest energy more economically. The spacing of wind turbines poses a design challenge: how should we optimally space turbines while reducing turbulence between turbines and minimizing the real estate occupied? While studying schooling patterns in fish, Dabiri came to the revelation that by mimicking fish that swim in coordinated patterns to minimize drag, he could re-imagine a way to design efficient wind farms. To this end, in 2011, he established the Caltech Field Laboratory for Optimized Wind Energy, an experimental wind farm that uses an array of intelligently arranged vertical wind turbines to maximize the efficiency of energy production.
For his innovative ideas and significant contributions to the field of fluid dynamics, Dabiri received the MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” in 2010. His honors also include a Young Investigator Award from the Office of Naval Research and a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 2008. He was also honored with the National Science Foundation’s 2020 Alan T. Waterman Award for his exceptional discoveries.
John Dabiri is part of a wave of interdisciplinary scientists that are writing a language that will better allow biological systems to inform engineering solutions. This is a potentially groundbreaking endeavor, because you never know, sometimes the solution is staring right at you, through a lit-up, glass enclosure. You only need to, like Dabiri, be astute enough to recognize it.
Manasvi Verma, 1st year PhD student in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program at Harvard Medical School.
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