The National Science Foundation (NSF) announced today that it will honor John O. Dabiri (MS '03, PhD '05), Centennial Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering, with the 2020 Alan T. Waterman Award. The annual award recognizes researchers age 40 or younger who demonstrate "exceptional individual achievements in scientific or engineering research in NSF-supported fields," according to the NSF's announcement.
Dabiri joined Caltech's faculty as an assistant professor after receiving his PhD from the Institute in 2005, and was named associate professor in 2009. He became a professor in 2010, and also served as chair of the faculty from 2013–14 and the dean of undergraduate students from 2014–15. In 2015, he accepted a faculty position at Stanford University. He rejoined the Caltech faculty and was named to the Centennial Professorship in 2019.
"Despite the award citation, this is by no means an individual achievement. I've been fortunate to mentor an incredibly talented and diverse group of students, and without the creativity and resilience that each one has brought to the lab, the progress we've made would have been impossible," Dabiri says.
A 2010 MacArthur Fellow, Dabiri conducts research focused on unsteady fluid mechanics and flow physics, in particular as they relate to biology, energy, and the environment. His study of the movement of schools of fish led to new insights into the design of wind farms, and studies of natural jellyfish led to the development of a tissue-engineered jellyfish; more recently, he has developed implants that modulate the motion of jellyfish, causing them to swim faster and more efficiently. In addition, Dabiri discovered that efficient swimming in animals such as jellyfish and squid generates vortices that are similar to those created in a healthy human heart, whereas the vortices generated by animals swimming to escape a predator are more akin to those generated by a human suffering from cardiac disease. Understanding these patterns could help in future diagnosis and treatment of heart disease.
"A mantra instilled in me as a grad student at Caltech was to always question your assumptions. Over the course of 200 years of fluid mechanics, our field has embedded a lot of superfluous assumptions into our understanding of flow physics. Biological fluid dynamics is such an exciting area to me because nature isn't limited by those artificial biases. So, studying biological flows often leads to engineering solutions that we would have otherwise dismissed because they don't conform to our expectations. We'll use this award to search for more of those solutions," Dabiri says.
This is the fourth year that the NSF has chosen to honor two researchers with the award. Emily Balskus, a Harvard University chemist, will also receive the award for her exploration of how microbes from the gut are linked to human health and disease.
"This year's scientific pioneers are innovators who are creatively addressing some of the most challenging scientific questions," said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan in the award announcement. "Emily Balskus has opened up novel ways to explore and exploit the chemistry and biology of microbes that live in our bodies and how they are linked to our health. And we're already seeing the potential impact. John Dabiri has looked to the fluid mechanics of sea life for inspiration to build better wind farms that appear to boost efficiency with a much smaller footprint."
The Waterman Award will be presented to both recipients at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. at a later date. In addition to a medal, awardees each receive $1 million over five years for research in their chosen field of science.