Cal Tech assistant professor of aeronautics and bioengineering John Dabiri has been named one of the "Brilliant 10" scientists in the country by Popular Science on Thursday October 16, 2008, in Pasadena. (Staff Photo by Keith Birmingham)

PASADENA - A Caltech professor and Pasadena resident who studies the propulsion of jellyfish for practical applications in the real world has been named as one of the country's top young scientists in next month's issue of Popular Science magazine.

Dr. John Dabiri, 28, deemed by the magazine as one of its "Brilliant 10" - its seventh annual listing of "young scientists to watch" - is the youngest scientist on the list.

His work focuses on the specific way jellyfish propel themselves through water. By taking in and expelling water, jellyfish create vortex rings - swirling rings underneath their bodies - they use to move around.

Dabiri, an assistant professor of aeronautics and bioengineering, got the idea to study jellyfish while "looking at what nature has to improve upon" propulsion.

The jellyfish utilizes one of nature's more rudimentary means of propulsion.

"In many senses, it's really the bare-bones propulsion system," Dabiri said Thursday.

The dynamics of jellyfish propulsion have a variety of practical applications, and Dabiri's current research project is being funded in part by the Office of Naval Research because of its potential ability to make submarines and other watercraft more energy efficient.

"It's an energy-saving process that is related to how the animal orients its shape relative to the flow," Dabiri said.

He found propulsion based on the system used by jellyfish theoretically can provide

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a 40- to 50-percent improvement in energy efficiency over a standard propeller.

Dabiri's initial study of vortex rings came while he was doing graduate work to diagnose heart disease.

He discovered that healthy hearts tended to create more efficient currents in the bloodstream, much like those made by a jellyfish. Diseased organs produced currents similar to those made by the jellyfish's inefficient oceanic colleague, the squid.

"By studying those currents, we can determine if a heart is functioning optimally or not," Dabiri said.

Based on what he has learned from studying jellyfish, Dabiri and his team of graduate students have created a submarine-like vehicle that uses jellyfish-like propulsion to travel across a 130-foot water tunnel.

The vehicle's movements are recorded by a high-definition vehicle camera and a water-particle-illuminating laser. He said data produced by the device already has confirmed some of his theoretical predictions.

Dabiri, asked about being honored as one of the nation's "Brilliant 10," said he was "very excited to hear about it and flattered" before deflecting credit to his graduate students.

He said he was attracted to teaching at Caltech by the willingness of students to pursue unusual and sometimes daunting projects.

"It's an interesting combination of having some out-there ideas and finding grad students willing to take on these things," Dabiri said.


WHO: John Dabiri

POSITION: Assistant professor of aeronautics and bioengineering in Caltech's division of engineering and applied science.

BIRTHPLACE: Toledo, Ohio

RECENT HONOR: Named by Popular Science magazine (November issue) as one of its "Brilliant 10" for 2008. At age 28, he is the youngest scientist on the magazine's list.

BACKGROUND: The son of Nigerian immigrants - his father is a math teacher, his mother a software developer.

HIS RESEARCH: Dabiri and his group study the way jellyfish move through water, utilizing vortices - which resemble underwater whirlpools - for propulsion Even though they are essentially brainless, the jellyfish can orient their shape to better take advantage of the vortices: "Exactly how they do this is still a bit of a mystery," Dabiri said. Dabiri and his group hope their insights into how jellyfish move around will be used to improve the designs of nonbiological systems as diverse as military submarines and onshore windmills.

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