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John Dabiri

John Dabiri, Nigerian-American biophysicist and professor of aeronautics and bioengineering

John Dabiri is a Nigerian-American biophysicist and professor of aeronautics and bioengineering at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). He is best known for his research on the hydrodynamics of jellyfish propulsion as well as his design of a vertical-axis wind farm adapted from the movements of schooling fish. In 2010, he was awarded a MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship.

Early life and Education
Dabiri was born in 1980 to Nigerian parents who settled in Toledo, Ohio, USA in 1975. His father, a mechanical engineer, found a job teaching mathematics at a community college while his mother, a computer scientist, raised three children and then started a software development company. Watching his father (who would occasionally do engineering work on the side) using a drafting table he had set up in the living room, encouraged Dabiri's love of engineering.
Dabiri was educated at a small Baptist high school, from which he graduated first in his class in 1997. He enrolled atPrinceton University for his undergraduate studies, the only college he had applied to. His primary interests were rockets and jets and he spent two summers on Princeton’s campus carrying out research that included work on helicopter design. The summer after his third year, he accepted a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) in aeronautics at Caltech, rejecting an internship offer from Ford at the urging of one of his professors.
Having grown up in a part of the US known as the ‘Rust Belt’ (so called because it was home to many auto plants), Dabiri naturally gravitated toward transportation engineering. However, after working on a summer project on the vortices (swirling motions) created by a swimming jellyfish, he was drawn towards the field of biomechanics. Upon returning to Princeton for his final year, he applied for a graduate position at Caltech with Professor Morteza Gharib’s research group. He graduated summa cum laude with a BSE degree in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering in June 2001. In September 2001, he returned to Caltech as a National Defence Science and Engineering Graduate FellowGordon and Betty Moore Fellow, and YC Fung Fellow in Bioengineering. There, he focused much of his doctoral research on the difference between vortices created by rigid and flexible plates.
Under the supervision of Professor Gharib, he earned an MSc degree in aeronautics in June 2003, followed by a PhD in bioengineering with a minor in aeronautics in April 2005. He joined the Caltech faculty in May 2005.

Dabiri’s work draws on a wide range of fields including theoretical fluid dynamics, evolutionary biology and biomechanics. Dabiri and one of his students invented a method that allows divers to use tiny reflective particles to visualise the fluid dynamics of propulsion by jellyfish, a technique which provided data that can be used to test and refine models of vortex behaviour and formation. This research can help develop understanding of the evolution and biophysics of locomotion in jellyfish and other aquatic animals, as well as shed light on new applications in the field of fluid dynamics: from blood flow in the human heart to the design of wind power generators, a key form of renewable energy.
After partnering with Windspire Energy, a firm which makes wind turbines, Dabiri started his own company (Scalable Wind Solutions) to test and sell software used to optimally place wind turbines. He established the Caltech Field Laboratory for Optimized Wind Energy (FLOWE) in 2011, a wind farm which investigates the energy exchange in an array of vertical-axis wind turbines. The US Navy has also funded his development of an underwater craft whose propulsions employs these concepts to use 30% less energy than other similar crafts.
His most recent research focuses on reverse engineering, which involves taking apart an object to see how it works in order to duplicate or enhance its workings. In July 2012, Dabiri joined a team composed of Caltech and Harvard students and professors published a paper that outlined a tissue engineering method for building a jellyfish out of rat heart muscle cells and a silicon polymer. The next step this research will take is towards a self-sustaining prototype – one that can gather food and contract its muscles on its own.

Awards and Honours
In 2008, he was selected as an Office of Naval Research Young Investigator for research in bio-inspired propulsion andPopular Science magazine named him one of its "Brilliant 10" scientists; at the age of 28, he was the youngest scientist on the magazine's list.
In 2010, Dabiri was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship – given to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction – for his theoretical engineering work. 
Among his other honours are the Sigma Xi National Research Honour Society Book Award from Princeton University (2001); the MIT Technology Review Magazine TR35 Award (2007), and the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (2009). Bloomberg Businessweek also listed him among its 2012 Technology Innovators.

Dabiri was offered a tenured professorial position at Caltech in 2009 at the age of 29 and gave the convocation address there in 2010. He has taught several classes, including a graduate class on propulsion, a biomechanics course, a lab class on experimental methods in aeronautics and applied physics and the “Introduction to Fluid Mechanics” course.
He is currently the director of the Biological Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech, which examines fluid transport with applications in aquatic locomotion, fluid dynamic energy conversion and cardiac flows, as well as applying theoretical methods in fluid dynamics and concepts of optimal vortex formation. His scientific articles have appeared in various journals, including Nature, the Journal of Fluid Mechanics, the Journal of Experimental Biology and PNAS.

Watch: John Dabiri discussing his research:


  1. John Dabiri’s curriculum vitae (Retrieved 06-12-12)
  2. MacArthur Foundation
  3. Nairaland
  4. The California Institute of Technology's website
  6. Wikipedia
  7. Biological Propulsion Laboratory at CALTECH

Picture sources: MacArthur Foundation and Windpower Engineering and Development

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