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Introduction Dynamic Nature How do the seaweeds and creatures clinging to a rugged coastline survive the crashing waves without breaking? How do animals glide, and what makes some more maneuverable than others? How do antennae catch odors wafting in the wind or in water swirling around them? How can soft, squishy animals move around without a bony skeleton? These are some of the questions Mimi Koehl investigates. She works in a field of science called biomechanics. Mimi uses the laws of physics to study how living things move around in their environments and how they interact with the water or air that surrounds them. She wants to understand how the shape, size, or stiffness of an organism affects how well it performs particular tasks. Mimi doesn't just work in her laboratory. She gets out in nature, nose-to-nose with the creatures she studies. That way she can measure what the physical environment is like for the living machines that she analyzes. Today Mimi teaches and does research at the University of California at Berkeley. Mimi loves being a scientist, but she had to struggle to become one. She battled resistance from some family members who thought girls should not be scientists. She also had difficulty reading because she has dyslexia. But Mimi overcame all of these obstacles to become a world-class scientist. Here's the story of how she did it. ix
Mimi'sachievement went far beyond what was expected of her as a child.
1 HOPE CALLING I n July 1990 scientist Dr. Mimi Koehl checked a voice message on the answering machine in her office at the University of California, Berkeley. It said, "This is Ken Hope from the MacArthur Foundation. You've been chosen to receive a MacArthur Award-winning faculty Fellowship." members of the Yeah, right, thought Mimi. Ken Hope can't possibly be a real name! University of California at Berkeley (opposite)-- Of course, you "can hope" to win a MacArthur Fellowship. But the including biomechanist MacArthur Foundation only gives them to between 20 and 30 Mimi Koehl (third from people a year. This has to be a practical joke. Nobody is going to hand me left)--are honored at a 1991 ceremony. Mimi several hundred thousand dollars to do my kind of science, she thought. had just won a MacArthur Fellowship ~"Who for her creative science. Are You?" She studies how organisms such as corals (above) interact with "Mimi had every reason to think it was a practical joke," laughs the water or air moving Bob Paine, one of the mentors who shaped Mimi's career. Bob and around them. Mimi have played gags on each other for years. Mimi once planted plastic pink flamingos on field sites where Bob does ecological research on an offshore island near Washington State. Bob got even by planting them on Mimi's lawn and in her office. But Bob didn't stop there. He sent an application from "F. L. Mingo" to HOPE CALLING 1
Mimi's graduate science program at Berkeley. F. L. Mingo had excellent grades--for a pink plastic bird. Mimi's big brother, Bob Koehl, plays MACHINES jokes on Mimi, too. She returns the favor. S' Their jokes come from their favorite childhood TV program, The Three Stooges. TURE Bob asks, "Who else could teach you to say NA intelligent things like `Nyuk, Nyuk, Nyuk'?" Mimi was no stranger to practical jokes. Still, she couldn't wait to solve the mystery. University of She wondered, Which one of my friends or family could have dreamed up Washington marine this trick? biologist Bob Paine She finally called the phone number that "Ken Hope" had left laughs upon discovering that on her answering machine. The strange voice said the very same Mimi has spoofed thing she'd heard on the recording. "You've been chosen to him again--this time receive a MacArthur Fellowship." by planting a pink- flamingo windshield Mimi strained to recognize the speaker. She finally asked, screen in his car. "Who are you?" The voice replied, "You haven't heard a single word I've said, have you?" "No," answered Mimi, "I'm trying to figure out who you are. This is a practical joke, isn't it?" "No," he answered. "If you don't believe it's true, just call the MacArthur Foundation and ask for me. You'll find out it's all very real." ~"It's Really True!" As Mimi soon discovered, the MacArthur Foundation had indeed awarded her $260,000--with no strings attached. The foundation gives such "genius grants," as they're nicknamed, to people in all walks of life--writers, artists, dancers, civil rights workers, scientists, teachers, farmers, and more. The program doesn't reward the nominees for their past work. Instead it encourages them to be creative and to do original work in the future. 2
Mimi enlists the help of graduate student Suzy Worcester (far left) to empty seawater from her hip waders after a research trip into Elkhorn Lagoon on the California coast. "If I had an idea that required spending money on equipment," explains Mimi, "I could just do it. The fellowship gave me tremendous freedom to study anything that I thought was important. Even if the approach I used might seem wacky to some people, I was free to try." Mimi burned to tell someone the good news. She ran into the lab where her graduate students worked. "I got a MacArthur Fellowship," she blurted out. "How could you have?" her student, Suzy Worcester, asked. "You're not an ecologist." Suzy had confused the MacArthur Fellowship with the Robert H. MacArthur Award, given every two years to an ecologist who has "The fellowship gave me tremendous done outstanding work in studying freedom to study anything the environment. But Mimi is a that I thought was important." biomechanist, not an ecologist. Suzy's question burst Mimi's bubble, but not for long. Local newspapers soon picked up the story. "It was thrilling to be named in articles listing all these famous people," Mimi remembers. "I kept pinching myself to make sure it was really true." HOPE CALLING 3
~In the Dark Because people can't apply for a MacArthur Fellowship, they're MACHINES S usually shocked when they receive one. As Mimi puts it, "The ' awards come out of the blue, or so it seems." Since 1981 the MacArthur Foundation has handed out awards TURE to some 700 people. Every year the foundation picks a committee NA of several hundred people to nominate creative individuals in various fields. The foundation keeps the names of committee members secret. This allows them to speak freely about nominees. Only a handful of people connected to the awards knew that Mimi might be chosen. One of them asked Mimi's husband, Zack Powell, to get a copy of Mimi's professional résumé. To keep Mimi in the dark, Zack made up a story about sending it to a colleague in England. But Mimi beat him to the punch. Determined to save Zack the trouble, she mailed it off herself. Zack crept around the house, trying to get another copy without tipping off Mimi. After all, she still might not be picked. ~Groundbreaking Science Mimi's achievement went far beyond what was expected of her as a child. Throughout her early life, Mimi recalled her mother's warning: Smart women wind up spinsters or old maids. But Mimi's mother was wrong. Many men Zack Powell, Mimi's like smart women, and Mimi husband, mans the married one. tiller of a boat off the Zack studies and teaches coast of California. oceanography at Berkeley. He specializes in ocean currents, global climate, and plankton-- the tiny plants and animals upon which many marine food chains depend. He enjoys being married to someone who 4
can talk about physics and calculus over Steve Wainwright, breakfast. Mimi's Ph.D. advisor, is a leader in the new Zack also appreciates Mimi's ground- field of science known breaking research. "By the time of the as biomechanics. MacArthur Fellowship," he says, "people Every year, Mimi makes him another had begun to recognize that her work is signature bow tie. special. It's one thing to think about biology. It's another thing entirely to think about mechanics or engineering. Yet Mimi is putting them together--not just in nature, but also in the laboratory. It's different and it's creative." Steve Wainwright, Mimi's mentor and advisor for her Ph.D., agrees. "I was thrilled when Mimi won a MacArthur," he declares. "She has gone so much further than me in a field that I helped pioneer in North America." ~"Crazy, Creative People" At the time Mimi won the MacArthur Fellowship, the foundation held meetings in Chicago where the various MacArthur winners gathered. People read poetry, played music, showed videos of dance performances, or talked about their research. "Mimi still has trouble recognizing just how good she is," Zack points out. "So she held back telling other MacArthur Fellows about her ideas." "I was terrified to speak up," recalls Mimi. "I felt so insecure-- I was a nerdy scientist among all these artists, writers, dancers, and musicians. For the first couple of meetings,I didn't present anything. I just watched other people talk or perform." The foundation allowed each MacArthur Fellow, past and present, to bring one guest. Mimi brought Zack. Everybody wore a name tag, but the tags didn't say which person had won the award. "Zack isn't shy like me," says Mimi. "So he struck up conversations with all these interesting people. They just assumed he was the MacArthur Fellow, and that I was the spouse quietly tagging along. HOPE CALLING 5
Important Matters Two kinds of matter matter to Mimi: hand through bathwater, it deforms, too. But MACHINES fluids and solids. Basically, fluids flow; when you stop applying the force, the fluid S solids don't. The reason lies in their stays deformed. It doesn't snap back to where ' molecular structure. In solids the it was before you stirred things up. molecules are bonded to each other. In Here's another difference: Solids care about TURE fluids--liquids and gases--the how hard, or far, you deform them. Fluids NA molecules can move past each other. care about how fast you push them. Try You can pick up a solid, but just try pushing your hand through water slowly, picking up a fluid without a container. then rapidly. The faster you push, the more It slips through your fingers. the water (or air) resists. Solids resist being deformed when you So why does all this matter to Mimi? Because apply force. And when you stop she's curious about how solid organisms applying force, they bounce back to interact with moving fluids. She wants to their original shape. Try this with a figure out questions like: How do living rubber eraser. Push on it gently. What creatures stand up to fluid forces? How do happens? Push on it harder until it they move through fluids? How do they catch deforms, or bends. Then stop pushing. things like food or smells from the air or Boing! It springs back into shape. water around them? That's why physics Fluids are another matter. When you matters to biomechanists like Mimi. apply force to a fluid, like moving your Force FLUID Force Original shape Apply force: Remove force: Deforms Stays deformed Force SOLID Force Original shape Apply force: Remove force: Deforms Snaps back to shape 6
Still, it was wonderful to be surrounded by crazy, creative people doing neat stuff. I found it all very exciting." One especially memorable person turned out to be Jack Horner, a famous scientist who was the inspiration for a character in the movie Jurassic Park. But it wasn't the Hollywood connection that made an impression on Mimi. It was something Jack told her. Jack was the first person to tell One of America's best- Mimi that she might be dyslexic. (Dyslexia is a condition that known paleontologists, makes it extremely difficult to read, write, and spell.) Jack could Jack Horner, proudly recognize the signs for dyslexia because he himself is dyslexic. This displays the skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex was a very important observation for Mimi because it answered unearthed in Montana many questions for her. It also showed her that she was not alone. in 1990. Like Mimi, Jack After meeting so many inspiring Fellows, Mimi finally summoned is a MacArthur Fellow. the courage to do a presentation on biomechanics--the exciting branch of science that uses the principles of engineering and physics Diving into her work, to figure out how living things work. Mimi studies spawning Mimi showed videotapes of the underwater world she visits sea creatures on Australia's Great Barrier often--and loves deeply. "I didn't explain all the physics," says Mimi. Reef in 1995. "I mainly wanted people to see the shapes and forms that drew me into the ocean. I wanted them to see the beauty of water, plants, and animals in motion. Fluid flow is incredible! So that's what I did: I took them into the sea." Mimi's journey through life has done its own share of twisting, turning, and drifting. Some of the obstacles she faced, such as dyslexia, were so challenging that others might have quit. But Mimi's curiosity got the best of her. "I had this burning question," smiles Mimi. "How does nature work?" HOPE CALLING 7