Sea Change

At Duke, Mimi Koehl Ph.D. '76 studied under renowned zoology professors Steven Vogel and Stephen Wainwright '53. While her dissertation included interesting revelations about sea anemones, it had an impact well beyond the study of anthopleura: causing her mentors to re-envision their field.
October 1, 2008
Steven Vogel
Stephen Wainwright '53

Steven Vogel (top) and Stephen Wainwright '53
Photos Duke University Photography (top), Les Todd (bottom)

Until the 1970s, biologists who explored the way living organisms function tended to adhere to disciplinary boundaries similar to those established by mechanical engineers. Solid-mechanics specialists like Wainwright (pictured below right) studied the design of organisms, while Vogel (top) and other researchers in fluid mechanics studied the ways that these organisms interact with their environment.

But Koehl's dissertation project, which examined the way that particular species of anemones change shape in reaction to ocean wave forces, combined the two fields. Her thesis, Vogel recently wrote in the journal Integrative and Comparative Biology, "triggered the conversation that led [Wainwright and me] to give, in the following year, a course we called 'Biomechanics,' renamed ten years later 'Comparative Biomechanics.' "

Over the next three decades, they would co-teach the course twenty-six times, influencing the way that legions of zoology students understand organismal biology and shaping a new field of study that applies principles of engineering and physics to the study of animal movement.

The field has grown steadily, with Duke's zoology (now biology) department serving as an incubator early on. Three Ph.D. graduates have gone on to win prestigious MacArthur Fellowships: Koehl, a Wainwright student, in 1990; Barbara Block Ph.D. '86, a Knut Schmidt-Nielsen student, in 1996; and Thomas Daniel Ph.D. '82, a Vogel student, also in 1996.

Program graduates have gone on to populate top departments in the field, including those at Harvard University, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Chicago, and the University of Washington (where Daniel is chair of biology).

Others have made an impact in related fields. Tierney Thys Ph.D. '98, a Wainwright student, studied fish biomechanics at Duke. She now produces documentaries on marine life as a research consultant with the Sea Studios Foundation in Monterey, California.

These offspring have even begun to produce star students of their own. Sönke Johnsen, an assistant professor of biology at Duke whose study of tiny, transparent sea creatures was featured on the cover of the November-December 2005 issue of Duke Magazine, studied under Wainwright protégé William Kier Ph.D. '83 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Though now overshadowed by molecular biology—in terms of faculty spots and grant money—at many universities, including Duke, the field of comparative biomechanics remains popular, Wainwright and Vogel say, in part because it is a young discipline and there is so much left to study.

Meanwhile, Wainwright and Vogel, both retired from teaching at Duke, continue to spread their knowledge to new generations, albeit in different ways.

Vogel is the author of a textbook on comparative biomechanics, co-editor of a teaching website on the topic, and a frequent speaker at academic conferences.

Wainwright has gone on to establish two nonprofits based in Durham. One, the Center for Inquiry-Based Learning, encourages middle- and high-school science teachers to "teach science as an interesting humanity instead of as a list of impossible words to memorize." At the second, SeeSaw Studio, he works with public high-school students to design and sell art.