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Comparative Biomechanics Pioneer Named 2018 Distinguished Alumni Award Recipient

April 18, 2018

Mimi A.R. Koehl
Photo courtesy of Mimi A.R. Koehl

As a kid in the 1950s, Mimi A.R. Koehl spent a lot of time in her father’s workshop in the basement of their home in Silver Spring, Maryland, learning to use tools by helping him build stuff. The only things he let her make on her own, though, were pieces of doll furniture—you know, “girl stuff.”

Six decades later, Koehl is still building things (research apparatus and models of organisms), but she has also spent a lifetime defying expectations for her to stick to “girl stuff.” A pioneer in the field of comparative biomechanics, she uses engineering and physics principles to study the design and movements of organisms. The models she builds these days stir scientific debates, make headlines, and uncover insights on creatures past and present.

For her accomplishments, The Graduate School has named Koehl (Ph.D.’76 Zoology) the recipient of its 2018 Distinguished Alumni Award. She will be honored at the school’s Ph.D. hooding ceremony on May 12.

Koehl, a professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, has thrived despite a disability that she didn’t know about for much of her life. She has also overcome considerable doubts about her odds for scientific success—doubts from graduate school admission committees, from her own parents, and even from herself.

She almost didn’t even make it to Duke. Once at Duke, though, she found mentors who helped build her confidence, and her dissertation contributed to the emergence of a new field of study.

Studying ‘Too Much’

Growing up, Koehl learned math from her father—a physics professor—and picked up an appreciation for art from her mother, who refused to call herself a professional artist even though she attended elite art schools and created and sold portrait paintings while staying home to raise Koehl and her older brother.

Koehl did well in school, but her parents had 1950s notions of what women should aspire to. Her mother worried that Koehl was spending too much time on homework and would not get dates if she seemed smarter than the boys, so she limited how long Koehl could study. In response, Koehl snuck out of bed early to do homework, until a neighbor turned her in.

When she went to Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania in 1966, Koehl declared herself an art major, which met with her parents’ approval. Much to their chagrin, though, the science classes in her liberal arts curriculum later persuaded her to switch to biology.

“What I realized was that what scientists do is understand how nature works,” Koehl said in a 2008 Duke Magazine story. “That seemed much more exciting and satisfying than simply appreciating the forms.”

She graduated magna cum laude, but switching majors limited how many science courses she could take, and that hurt her application for graduate school. Her fiancé at the time was also looking at graduate school, and they applied to many of the same places. He got accepted; she did not. In fact, the only place that showed any interest in her was the Duke Zoology Ph.D. program (now part of the Biology program), which put her on its waitlist.

With dim graduate school prospects and a wedding on the horizon, Koehl’s dream of a science career was dissipating, but she refused to let that happen. In 1970, three weeks before she was to get married, she called off the wedding because she “wasn’t ready to stop learning.”

Koehl and her fiancé went their separate ways, and her path took her to the prestigious Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, where she worked as a lab technician for a summer. At summer’s end, she remembered that she never got a rejection letter from Duke. Mustering her courage, she called the director of graduate studies in the Duke Zoology department.

That call changed her life.

Someone had dropped out, the director told her, so there was a spot for her.

Crisis of Confidence

When she arrived at Duke in fall 1970, Koehl had a lot of catching up to do. All the science courses she didn’t take as an undergraduate had to be made up in her first year, but perhaps of greater concern was her self-confidence, which was reeling from her experience applying to graduate schools.

“I arrived thinking, ‘I must be the dumbest kid in the class—the bottom of the barrel, the last one chosen for the very last spot,” Koehl said in a 2005 biography.

Or as her eventual Duke adviser Stephen Wainwright, now a James B. Duke Professor Emeritus, put it more colorfully in that biography, “Her self-esteem was lower than whale droppings on the bottom of the ocean floor”—a characterization seconded by Koehl.

Her family’s disapproval of her career choice didn’t help. Wainwright recalled that on a visit to campus, Koehl’s mother asked him while they were driving to dinner, “Don’t you think it is totally wrong for young women to be studying to be scientists?”

Wainwright helped Koehl rebuild her confidence. He agreed to be her adviser provided that she complete a difficult British-style tutorial with him—a requirement for all of his graduate students. It involved writing five papers in a semester and having each one picked apart.

That experience pushed Koehl to discover how good she could be, said Steven Vogel, the late James B. Duke Professor who introduced Koehl to Wainwright.

“Wainwright kicked her when she needed it and told her she was as good as anyone in the world,” Vogel told Duke Magazine in 2008.

Bridging the Divide

After her first year at Duke, Koehl returned to Woods Hole as a summer fellow to explore a potential career in oceanography. The institute, however, did not allow women on its oceangoing vessels, which meant Koehl would have to ask male colleagues to conduct the experiments she designed.

That prompted her to search for another career path, and she found it at the intersection of her Duke mentors’ work. Wainwright focused on solid mechanics (the design of organisms), while Vogel studied fluid mechanics (how organisms interact with air and water). At the time, biologists who studied how organisms function tended to stay on one side or the other of that divide. Koehl bridged the two disciplines with her dissertation.

For that dissertation, she studied sea anemones to learn how soft-bodied animals can withstand ocean currents and wave forces. Most biomechanical research was done in laboratories, but Koehl was one of the pioneers of doing biomechanical experiments out in nature, where the organisms have to function and survive. Because she wanted to measure which aspects of a sea anemone—posture, tentacles, warts, slime—affected the wave forces they experienced, she took a pottery class and built clay models so that she could change one feature at a time and measure its effect. This would have been impossible using real sea anemones. It was a glimpse of the model-building approach that would become one of her trademarks.

Vogel later credited Koehl’s dissertation with spurring him and Wainwright to create a long-running course called Biomechanics (later renamed Comparative Biomechanics). The course molded the way students understood biology and helped to shape the emerging field of comparative biomechanics—a field in which Koehl would become a star.

Koehl on the reef
Mimi Koehl originally considered a career in oceanography but switched gears because of gender-based rules that would
have kept her from going to sea to conduct her experiments. (Photo courtesy of Koehl)

Taking Flight

After Duke, Koehl went on to two postdocs and a brief stint as an assistant professor at Brown University before joining the faculty at UC Berkeley in 1979. In her research, she not only works with real organisms, but also builds models of creatures past and present to investigate nature’s mysteries: how insects evolved wings, how flying frogs glide, how lobsters capture odors from the water around them, how a four-winged feathered dinosaur maneuvered in the air, how microscopic animals can swim to where they need to go even though they are being swept along in turbulent water currents and waves, and how a mosquito takes off without detection after sucking your blood. Her work has produced insights that could lead to solutions to practical problems.

As she shed light on one riddle after another, the accolades began to pile up: the Presidential Young Investigator Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (the “genius grant”), both the Borelli Award (American) and the Muybridge Award (international) for outstanding career accomplishment in biomechanics, the Rachel Carson Award from the American Geophysical Union, and the John Martin Award for research that “created a paradigm shift in aquatic sciences,” just to name a few.  She was also elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Her selection as a MacArthur Fellow led her to an unexpected discovery. At an event for MacArthur Fellows, she met the famous paleontologist Jack Horner, who inspired the Jurassic Park character Alan Grant. After hanging out with Koehl for a bit, he asked her if she was dyslexic—a condition that made it very hard to read, spell, and write. Horner was dyslexic, and he recognized some of the same signs in her.

Koehl was surprised; she was in her 40s and had never considered that possibility. Soon thereafter, she got tested for dyslexia, and the results confirmed Horner’s suspicion.

Rather than seeing the condition as an obstacle, Koehl said her dyslexia has actually helped her science career.

“I can’t read very well and I can’t memorize, so the only way I can learn things is to understand them, and that has really helped me as a scientist,” she said in a 2014 talk.

Making Sense of the Past

The dyslexia diagnosis also made a lot things from her past click for Koehl: the long hours she spent reading for homework, her aptitude for spatial thinking and seeing temporal patterns, the tricks her father taught her to make math easier, such as leaving lots of space around equations so they don’t get scrambled.

“When I first got diagnosed, I went to one of these seminars for adults with learning disabilities,” Koehl said. “They were teaching us all these tricks, and I thought, ‘My dad taught me every one of those.’ ”

Learning math from her father, George, and helping in his workshop had sowed the seeds for Koehl’s career. Yet, George had tried to dissuade her from pursuing science because it wasn’t “girl stuff.”

In 1985, Koehl received a young alumni award from Gettysburg College. As part of the honor, she was invited to deliver a guest lecture. She hoped George, who was dealing with health problems at the time, could attend, and her husband, Zack, offered to take George to the event. It took some convincing, but George showed up.

After watching his daughter, the former art major, deliver a lecture to the biology department, George turned to Zack and said, “She really is something special, isn’t she?”