Dr. John O. Dabiri: A John of All Trades

To call Dr. Dabiri an accomplished man is an understatement. After graduating summa cum laude in mechanical and aerospace engineering from Princeton, he received his Master's and PhD at Caltech. At the age of 29, he became a tenured professor at Caltech and just five years later became the Undergraduate Dean. He is best known for his research in jellyfish propulsion and the design of a wind farm based on schooling fish. 

On the side, he was also a Rhodes and Marshall finalist and has earned the MacArthur Genius Grant and the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. He currently works at Stanford as the director of the Biological Propulsion Laboratory and a professor of aeronautics and bioengineering. This is not at all an extensive list.

I first met Dr. Dabiri at the University of Oregon winter of 2017 when he gave a talk in Willamette Hall. His research fascinated me, but what intrigued me even more was his ability to work in and integrate multiple fields. It's rare in STEM to see that. And it made me feel hopeful.

Despite his busy schedule, he was gracious enough to grant me an interview. I started off with a question that I hoped would dilute some of my feelings of hopeless despair.

At a time when it feels like facts are lost, how would you define a fact or a truth?

Hmm, I took a philosophy of science class in college where I’m sure we learned a more rigorous answer than this, but I think a reasonable definition of a fact is something that can be tested and falsified if it’s not true. The idea of truth feels a bit less concrete; I’m a person of faith, and so there are things I believe to be true but that I can’t prove (e.g. the existence of God). To me, they’re truths, but I wouldn’t call them facts. If truth and fact are supposed to be synonymous, then I guess I’ll have to call my truths something else!

Why is science important?

I think we as humans have innate curiosity about the nature of the world around us, and science is one of the most valuable tools we have to understand how that world works. Science is also the basis for engineering and technology that can make the world a better place, and so it is essential for that reason as well.

I've been told on more than one occasion that I must specialize in one field. Looking at your work, I get excited at the prospect that it's possible to solve problems through an inter- and multidisciplinary lens. What was your experience like to end up teaching and conducting research in multiple fields? What advice would you have for someone wanting to follow your path?

I think it is important to have a deep understanding of at least one area of study, since ‘changing the world’ often requires understanding the assumptions of some field well enough to challenge them. That’s not a trivial task, since many fields have become entrenched in ideas that are centuries old. As the same time, most of the important issues today involve more than one field, so exposure to multiple disciplines will make you more effective as a scientist. I was fortunate to have mentors who encouraged interdisciplinary study, while always keeping true to the fundamentals (of fluid mechanics, in my case). My advice would be to find a similar mentor, someone who is familiar with the range of fields in which you’re interested and with a broad enough perspective to appreciate that no single field has a monopoly on interesting problems.

Thank you! Now so much of science deals with failure, but we, as students, are rarely told or reminded of that. How can we help normalize failure as long as the person tries again?

Part of the challenge is that failure isn’t celebrated in itself, even though failure is inevitable on the path to success. I’d like to see us take the time at each point of triumph (e.g. publishing a paper, winning awards, etc) to deliberately highlight the failures that paved the way for the success. If students saw that success and failure go hand in hand, I think failure would soon be seen as a normal part of life in science.

In your NPR interview, you talk about the importance of encouraging kids at a young age to engage with science. Kids are inherently curious, but as their education progresses, many find science and math more and more dull. How do we not only get them excited about science, but help them retain their innate curiosity to learn?

We’re starting to see some successful examples of efforts like the Maker Movement, which helps connect STEM ideas with relatable topics that a student can directly engage with. When students can design, build, and test something using ideas from math and science, it can be much more impactful than just learning multiplication tables. Making STEM relevant, especially for disadvantaged kids who might not imagine a career in science, is one of the most important things we can do to make sure that curiosity you mentioned isn’t lost.

How can we create an overall more science-literate population?

Related to the prior answer, it’s important to connect the science to things people care about. I’m a strong proponent of ‘science for science’s sake’, but I think that isn’t enough to capture the majority of the population. They want to understand how science can make life better for them, and so we need to make sure those examples show up frequently.

Switching gears to a tangential topic: Many scientists argue that science and religion cannot coexist. What would you say in response?

Well, I can point to many counterexamples of science and religion coexisting in the same scientist (myself included). I think the statement is usually referring to the extremes of scientific and religious dogma, which often do conflict. But scientific dogma is rarely rooted in science, and religious dogma is rarely rooted in authentic religion.

What is the greatest threat facing this country/world?

Apathy. To make progress on our difficult challenges like climate change, social inequality, etc, people need to care enough to do simple things like voting. Unfortunately, most people aren’t inspired to act, and that threatens our ability to work together to effect change even when our way of life could be fundamentally threatened.

Lastly, what advice would you give to your 20-year-old self?

Make the most of your free time; life only gets busier :)


Want to learn more about Dr. Dabiri's research?

Visit his lab website here and read an article about his work with jellyfish here


Read this article about embracing multiple paths.

Graduating soon and looking at scholarships?

Check out Rhodes and Marshall!