When Kakani Young describes the focus of her research as "jet propulsion," you could be forgiven for thinking that she's referring to something in the sky. But Young isn't an aerospace engineer. She's an expert in how jellyfish and squid move through water.
A former researcher at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, she's studying underwater animals to see if there are lessons that could be applied to submarines. "In terms of the physics, there really isn't much of a difference between animals flying and animals swimming," Young explained.
Young is one of the many researchers who are taking lessons from nature and applying them to questions of design, engineering, architecture and medicine. It's all part of a research approach called bio-inspired engineering, or biomimicry.
At Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston, Jeffrey Karp's research team has developed a glue that can knit together fragile cardiac muscles, using a molecule that mimics the behaviors of underwater worms.
At the California Institute of Technology, Morteza Gharib is studying how leaves grow on trees, on the theory that his team can replicate the effort and "grow" carbon nanotubes — a process that could eventually replace the current technology used to build silicon computer chips.
At Ohio State University, Yi Zhao is developing a lens that could allow people or cameras to see multiple focal lengths, like an insect. He says that it could one day be used for internal surgery, or as a new type of contact lens.
Jo McCulty / The Ohio State University
Yi Zhao with an experimental, multi-focus lens.
The principle isn't limited to the kinds of high-end projects that belong in scientific journals. In San Diego, a small company called Hydroflex has reinvented the production of surfboards and skateboards by adapting the internal structure of plant leaves.
Until very recently, engineering and design decisions were based more around the capabilities of the materials involved than around the lessons taught by nature. For example, the height of a skyscraper used to be determined merely by how high walls of steel could be raised.
Today, architects are drawing inspiration from mangrove tree to design curving buildings that hold up better in the face of disaster.
First published April 2 2014, 9:49 AM
Matt Rivera is a senior video producer. He started this role in September of 2010. Rivera is responsible for producing original video features such as 30 Seconds to Know, Future Tech, New World of Work, Paying it Forward, and Gadgetbox for NBCNews.com. His role requires him to produce original journalism and to coordinate original video series sponsorships with the Ad-Sales team. Rivera reports to Bill Smee, director of original production.
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Rivera joined NBCNews.com from The Wall Street Journal, where he was a multimedia producer. In that role, Rivera was responsible for Page One video features, launched four original video series with the Greater New York section, and produced daily on-air segments for WSJ.com, MarketWatch and Barronâ€™s. He was also responsible for training reporters in video production and helped launch WSJ.comâ€™s In-Depth video reporting initiatives.
Prior to his work at Dow Jones, Rivera was the co-founder of a small production company that focused on documentaries, reality television and corporate video.
Rivera has lead classes in video production as an adjunct professor at NYUâ€™s Carter Journalism Institute and as a visiting instructor at the Bauhaus-Weimar and at the BBCâ€™s PDP program in Newcastle, England.
Rivera is the recipient of a 2008 SABEW award for his work with WSJ.comâ€™s in-depth video reporting, and was nominated for an Emmy for his work producing Page One video reports. He was named a Taiwan Fellow in 2009 by the National Press Foundation. Rivera received the Sydney Gross Prize for Investigative Reporting upon completing his studies at NYU.
Rivera is the co-director of a feature-length documentary, The White House Hotel: Life at the end of the Bowery and has produced a number of short films including The Hair Man of Williamsburg, and Buy Any Jeans Necessary.
Rivera lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.