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Punching for Science

What do you do when the news media and the US government ridicule your work and call it a waste of money? You make it your mission to prove them wrong. Duke biology professor Sheila Patek did just that when she defended her incredible research on the mantis shrimp’s incredible physical capabilities.

What would you do if your life’s work–something you poured your heart and soul into–was ridiculed by the media and called a waste of money by the government? Talk about a blow. For Dr. Sheila Patek, this nightmare became a reality last year when Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona included her research in a “Wastebook”, which detailed projects that some members of Congress view as wasteful. Not to mention the fact that Good Morning America personally attacked a member of her lab. But, instead of giving into the pressure and giving up, Dr. Patek made it her mission to explain the usefulness and relevance of her research and defend her work.

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Dr. Patek, a biology professor at Duke, researches organisms that move extremely fast or produce sound in the ocean. Her lab seeks to understand the fundamental principles behind how organisms achieve high accelerations, and collaborates with physicists, engineers, and mathematicians to develop these ideas into more broadly applicable knowledge.

In particular, her lab focuses on the mantis shrimp, which uses extremely fast spearing or smashing appendages to either catch prey or break open shells. Some mantis shrimp can generate punches with accelerations that exceed 100,000 meters per second squared. And yet, somehow mantis shrimp resolve conflicts by punching each other without harm. Though a significant portion of Dr. Patek’s research investigates the physical mechanisms of the “super-fast”, she also places emphasis on using organisms’ evolutionary histories to formulate real design principles that can be applied to a multitude of fields.

Though her lab does not necessarily work on creating products that directly impact the public, Dr. Patek believes that her research can eventually lead to important developments. As such, she tries incredibly hard to explain why her lab is deserving of taxpayers’ money. For example, understanding how such mantis shrimp use their small and lightweight appendages to break snail shells (whereas humans can only do the same with a hammer) may help design improved military devices. Not to mention that some properties of the mantis shrimp’s shell, those that allow it to withstand such forceful impacts, have show promise in formulating stronger and lighter bullet proof vests. Dr. Patek knows that her research can directly impact such engineering advancements, so she applies herself to work with the media to the ensure the public makes the most of its money.

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“The thing about the news is that they tell funny, silly stories about science in order to sell newspapers and magazines, which isn’t what drives what we do. We certainly don’t do science to make the news. We do science to solve problems.

To people who are not part of the scientific community, Dr. Patek’s work may seem a bit odd–it has even been sensationalized in the news as a “Fight Club” for crustaceans. Ironically, Dr. Patek makes an immense effort to work with the press to explain what her lab does and how it benefits the public.

“I think every day about the fact that our research is funded by taxpayers. I really do. And I think to myself, what is the public getting from the work that we do here? The thing about the news is that they tell funny, silly stories about science in order to sell newspapers and magazines, which isn’t what drives what we do. We certainly don’t do science to make the news. We do science to solve problems.

Unfortunately, such communications don’t always proceed as planned. In this particular instance, her efforts to talk with the the public caught Senator Jeff Flake’s (R-AZ) attention last year. Without reading any scientific papers written by Dr. Patek’s lab, Sen. Flake’s office used Dr. Patek’s work in a “Wastebook” as an example of scientific research that he thought was a waste of taxpayers’ money. Though clearly not ideal, Dr. Patek did not take the inclusion of her work in the Wastebook personally, understanding it to be more of a political stunt than anything else.

What really frustrated her was how ABC, which produces Good Morning America, dispensed completely untrue information about her lab in response, saying that over $700,000 of federal money was spent on one particular study that pitted mantis shrimp against each other–fight club style. In reality, the $700,000 was used for the entirety of Dr. Patek’s research, and the description of the research as a “Fight Club” was a gross oversimplification of her lab’s hard work.  Even when Dr. Patek contacted them and pointed out their mistakes, ABC refused to issue a correction.

What helped her through these trials, however, was the incredible encouragement she received. Both Duke and the National Science Foundation were immensely supportive, and she was even invited to do a piece with PBS NewsHour. Dr. Patek recalled receiving over 300 emails after the video aired, indicating the scope and impact her story had around the world.

To me, the value of research is the new knowledge and the incredible ways that humans take knowledge and put it into other places.”

Dr. Patek and other researchers included in the Wastebook eventually made their way to Capitol Hill to present said research in-depth to the people who were skeptical of the benefits such research could bring to the public. Senator Flake surprisingly attended the event himself, and seemed genuinely interested in Dr. Patek’s work and its applications to engineering design.

“In the end, [the whole situation] ended up being really positive. It turned out to be a really neat opportunity given to me by Duke, PBS, even Congress.”

Dr. Patek feels very strongly not only about the importance of her research, but also research in general. Patek sees research in the US as too narrowly focused only on developments that directly help humans–namely those that extend life or enhance devices. To her, people seem to have lost “the thread of what is the value of knowledge,” even though both medical discoveries and device development have to come from basic research.

“It’s not easy, and it’s not appreciated. News outlets botch things all the time. The effort and the difficulty and the endless interruptions are not things I get rewarded for. But this past year has really brought home how important it is to formulate things in a way that other people can access.” 

Dr. Patek believes that research is all about discovering novel concepts, concepts that can have incredible potential and value across diverse locations and disciplines. For example, a lab at University of California- Riverside started working on new materials based on the hammers of mantis shrimp–an initiative inspired by a TED talk she gave back in 2004. Dr. Patek’s work has even made its way into a comic strip and a line of stuffed animals

To see the full cartoon, visit: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/mantis_shrimp

To see the full cartoon, visit: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/mantis_shrimp

“To me, the value of research is the new knowledge and the incredible ways that humans take knowledge and put it into other places. Sometimes it turns into artwork, different ways of thinking, of expressing. It’s this incredible thing that we do in the United States; invest in discovery, in knowledge, and value it. And I would love to see that move back into the center of what education is for,” Dr. Patek explains.

Dr.Patek believes that her lab is best when looking for new knowledge as opposed to building devices. Most members of her lab are biologists, and are not necessarily trained in development and product design. Furthermore, her lab is funded by the MURI (Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative) grant, which specifically funds basic research, rather than application. Though the MURI grant is supplied by the Department of Defense, it actually prohibits researchers from building devices, meaning that Dr. Patek does not have to worry about constructing military systems from her work.

Additionally, Dr. Patek believes that it is more important to discover new ideas from her research before sharing it with other members of the scientific community for further use. As such, she goes through back-breaking efforts to explain what her lab does so that other people outside of the field can understand her research and use it.

“It’s not easy, and it’s not appreciated. News outlets botch things all the time. The effort and the difficulty and the endless interruptions are not things I get rewarded for. But this past year has really brought home how important it is to formulate things in a way that other people can access,” she elaborates.

Dr. Patek also focuses on helping students who are involved with research or who want to get started in research. She was one of the founders of MUSER (Matching Undergraduates to Science and Engineering Research), which is a database that aims to pair undergraduates to labs that fit their interests. Her dream is to make all research opportunities transparently delivered and available to students. Most importantly, Dr. Patek emphasizes that everyone needs to figure out what’s most important to them–what makes them tick–and pursue that.

“I just love it. I love doing the math, I love analyzing data, I love making figures, I love writing grant proposals. I just love the whole shebang–discovering and seeing things and figuring out how to place them into broader problems.”

“If you have something that is incredibly fascinating to you, that’s a real open window for discovery,” she says. “One of my favorite parts about research is watching people’s brains work and watching people around me find something for which they are willing to do this incredible deep dive and get completely consumed by a problem and then seeing what comes from that. And that’s of course the best part about being at a university.”

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It is easy to see Dr. Patek’s passion and zeal for research just by talking to her. When asked about her favorite part of research, she admits that she loves collecting data and measuring things.

“I just love it. I love doing the math, I love analyzing data, I love making figures, I love writing grant proposals. I just love the whole shebang–discovering and seeing things and figuring out how to place them into broader problems.”

Dr. Patek’s joy and excitement about knowledge in general is truly inspiring, and her dedication to the communication of science and integrity of research deserves all of the recognition she has received in the past year and more. Duke students can look to her stand against the media’s and Washington’s misrepresentation of her work as encouragement: though society may be strongly fixated on medical findings and device innovation, researching purely for the sake of discovering fundamental principles, exploring novel concepts, and seeking pure knowledge will always hold value.

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Writer: Brian Chan

Editors: Vivian Zhang and Emilie Padgett

Photographer: Sierra Cleveland

Web: Rohan Kothari

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  • Kelvin
    December 5, 2016 at 6:29 pm

    Hi Brian, Wonderful article. Without basic research, there will not be any new ideas for “development”. Fundamental understandings of these natural phenomena are key to advancing science and to develop new technologies. Additionally, as you have pointed in your article, scientists need to communicate our passion and interests to the general public. Dr. Patek has done a great job; your writing this article suggests that you have the talent to communicate as a scientist as well. Keep up the good work.