John O. Dabiri, 32, is the impossibly young chair of faculty at the California Institute of Technology, where he studies jellyfish propulsion and fish schooling behavior — just the thing to spark “some U.S. senator to joke about 'studying how jellyfish move!' ” Handsome and quick to laugh, the professor of aeronautics and bioengineering explains, “Look, I do understand the idea of saving taxpayers money” — his research could end up saving piles of it. But his true aim is to address greater challenges like climate change and disease.
Born in Toledo, Ohio, to parents who'd fled turmoil in Nigeria, Dabiri says, “In my African-American, lower middle class neighborhood, if you did your homework, that was 'acting white.' It was culturally discouraged.” So his parents sent him to a Baptist school, where learning was king. He went to Princeton, then earned his Ph.D. at Caltech, dreaming of studying rockets. His mentor, Morteza Gharib, convinced him to study biological, not jet, propulsion, and in 2010 Dabiri won a MacArthur Foundation genius grant.
Now Dabiri, who lives on the Pasadena campus with his wife and two small children, uses Hollywood-like techniques to motion-capture fish and jellies in the ocean. He discovered that schools of fish save energy “pushing off each other's wake” and that a microscopic muscle propelling jellyfish is a potential model for growing replacement valves in humans. In 2010 he convinced Caltech to construct a wind farm of eggbeater-style turbines crammed close like a school of fish. It generated far more energy than typical wind farms, and the mayor of Igiugig, Alaska, this year visited Dabiri to “talk over her village's needs” — hoping his turbines could cut Igiugig's punishing energy costs.
Dabiri is a practicing Christian who believes science is too isolated from people. “Being able to press myself to understand the Bible and also [evolutionist] Richard Dawkins, who's no fan of Christianity, is important,” he says. “You wake up in the morning and decide, 'What are the problems we can solve in this world, given what we know?' ”
Accustomed to success — he's named on “top scientist” lists and is wildly competitive in soccer and basketball — Dabiri flashes a sheepish grin as he admits to one failing: “Unfortunately, I can't swim. Yes, I work on and around water. Fortunately, grad students swim.” He adds, “I have taken swimming lessons, so I'm more comfortable sinking than I was before.”
His students often ask if humans will someday fly around using jet packs. “I do think that's where we're headed: Highways decades from now will be like the buggy era. But there are far more pressing things than jet packs that we can do to help.”
His mission is to help on a large scale. He's deeply worried that K-12 schools are clueless about imparting math and science skills, and he fears a future “tsunami of kids who don't learn, and then it's too late,” he says.
But then his cheerful charm reasserts itself.
“When I met my wife, I told her I was from Caltech,” Dabiri says, “and she thought I said Caltrans. I guess she didn't want me for my mind.”