Kakani is a 2011 National Geographic Emerging Explorer. She studies the impact of the movement of marine animals on the world’s oceans and ocean currents.
Kakani explains the focus of a bioengineer: “We learn from what nature is doing and think of how we can apply that to technology in the future.”
The Boeing Company, one of the largest aerospace and defense contractors in the world, was one of the largest employers in Everett, Washington, where Kakani grew up. Software giant Microsoft also has a nearby campus. She cannot remember not being surrounded by engineers and different types of engineering.
Kakani is interested in fluid dynamics, or the way fluids move. Fluids can be air, water, and materials called plasmas, such as lightning. Kakani originally studied fluid dynamics in aerospace engineering. She earned her undergraduate degree in aeronautics from the University of Washington and a master’s degree in the same subject at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, California.
At Caltech, Kakani became more interested in fluid dynamics as they applied to bioengineering. Bioengineering is dominated by biomedical research. In fact, in college, Kakani worked to design an apparatus to improve artificial heart valves.
One day, one of Kakani’s professors asked her to take part in a scuba expedition to study fluid dynamics and jellyfish. She had no experience in biology or diving, but she was enthusiastic, and the opportunity opened a new career path.
She earned her PhD in bioengineering from Caltech, and now works at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK
Kakani enjoys both parts of field work—collecting data in the ocean and studying that data in the lab. Although she works with biologists and studies marine animals regularly, Kakani remains most enthusiastic about engineering. For instance, looking at footage of a swimming jelly, Kakani observes the patterns created in the water as the jelly propels itself forward—“Look at those sexy vortex rings!”
MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK
“Lack of sleep. Your targets are nocturnal animals that are usually the most active around midnight. You have to keep an open mind, because you constantly have to observe and measure their behavior.”
HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?
“What a place has to offer—people, scientists, their work, as well as the physical sites.”
Kakani says she always tries to work with the scientists and local residents of a region she’s studying. “It teaches you new ways to approach a problem, which is what an engineer does.”
Kakani helped invent a new geographic tool that helps engineers and biologists study the movement of fluids in the ocean. It’s a small device that a single scuba diver can carry. Before this tool was available, researchers studying the flow of hydrothermal vents or ocean currents had to re-create conditions in the lab or descend in a submersible. The lasers and high-speed cameras were big and bulky.
Researchers can now take their tools with them and study the environment in its natural state. Kakani has used the tool to study the environment in oceans and lakes in Friday Harbor, Washington; Long Beach, California; Palau; Croatia; Panama; and the open waters of the Pacific.
The organism that Kakani has followed to all these places is the jellyfish. “They’re everywhere!” she says.
Kakani and the biologists she works with often find schools of jellies not with sophisticated GIS technology, but by simple word-of-mouth. Fishermen and swimmers try to avoid jellies, and know where not to fish or swim.
Even in the water, jellies can be hard to detect. When asked about the possibility of being stung, Kakani laughs, “Oftentimes, that’s how you find them!” (She notes that the wetsuits her team wears usually prevent a serious sting, and most tentacles rub off with seawater or vinegar.)
Jellies make excellent subjects for fluid mechanics, Kakani says. They’re symmetrical, with easily identifiable organs. As they move, they create clear vortex rings—doughnut-shaped rings of water that quickly dissipate into the larger ocean. The vortex rings and the fluid the jellies transport with them as they move create a “rotational flow that mixes fluid in the ocean,” Kakani explains.
Marine biologists, as well as oceanographers and engineers, are interested in the way jellies and other marine organisms move. Some scientists hypothesize that the movement of these organisms could have the same effect on the ocean as winds and tides.
Even though she is not a marine biologist, Kakani says she wishes she knew more about these “crazy-looking, alien things.”
SO, YOU WANT TO BE A . . . BIOENGINEER
Kakani stresses the importance of math, and is frustrated by the way math and science are sometimes taught. “Sometimes we present it like it’s so hard. It is not daunting. We’re handicapping kids before they’ve even started.”
Engineering has taken Kakani from aeronautics—the study of spacecraft—to medical technology to bioengineering at the bottom of the ocean. Not surprisingly, she encourages young scientists to keep an open mind. “Get involved in a local aquarium, zoo, or university-outreach program. See what else is going on in science outside your comfort zone.”
Kakani also encourages families to travel, both inside and outside their local area. As a girl, “I was lucky enough to travel to see family in Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand. . . . I know most kids don’t have those opportunities, but you have the opportunity to go to a park or a science center nearby.”