Today's Reading



Being a scientist is like being an explorer. You have this immense curiosity, this stubbornness, this resolute will that you will go forward no matter what other people say.
—Sara Seager, planetary scientist

I stood on the deck of the slightly rolling ship and looked down at the sea below. A faint breeze across the Gulf of Mexico was not enough to make the day comfortable. I had rolled out of bed at 0330, or less specifically oh-dark-thirty, as the smaller numbers of the morning are sometimes called by the men and women of the United States Navy. That had left me just enough time to rouse myself to a state of consciousness sufficient for driving, get to base, and get safely on board the specialized military diving vessel before she got under way. We had been waiting for good weather to undertake this mission, and the calm waters off the starboard gunwale looked bleary through my tired eyes. I had been working toward the next moments for the last year and a half.

My job as a civilian engineer in Panama City, Florida, had been to get us to this point: to find a new underwater breathing system, prove it was safe, and get the navy to let us test dive it in the open ocean. It was a seemingly straightforward task, but one that had required plenty of sweat, creativity, and math. By the time the divers emerged from the ocean, I knew that the new system worked.

We cast celebratory fishing lines off the stern and trolled for dinner on the way home. The success of this project meant that the navy would want me to lead projects myself, to submit proposals for new technologies. They had even offered me the chance to go back to school and get a PhD in biomedical engineering so I could do it.

A few months later, I was assigned a seat at a curved desk with pale faux-wood veneer in the far corner of a narrow office on the Duke University campus. Wedged to the left of my desk was a battered black filing cabinet containing hundreds of meticulously labeled manila folders, shoved full of papers by a compulsive graduate student who had long ago studied cardiac function from my chair. The filing cabinet blocked my view of the lone, slit-like window on the wall opposite the doorway, and I had recycled the papers in the bottom drawer to make room for a small stockpile of individual-serving bags of potato chips—stolen booty from the catering tables at lectures on campus.

Unlike undergraduate students, who pay the costs of their own tuition, engineering PhD students are paid a stipend to perform their work and are often given the job title of "research assistants." However, these students are still different from normal employees because from the first day they arrive at their new labs they are already hoping to leave as quickly as possible. Graduation with a PhD is not guaranteed by completing certain classes; rather, the degree is granted only when, and if, a student's adviser declares the student to be finished. It's tacitly forbidden to ask the senior students when they will graduate because they are likely asking themselves the same question every day.

As students finish and move on, they often leave behind objects like relics of their time there, and new students moving into these borrowed spaces shift around the layers of abandoned artifacts to clear themselves an area. I had claimed my secret snack drawer but moved almost nothing else since I had first been placed into that office when I arrived at Duke in August 2011.

My research adviser was Cameron R. Bass, known as Dale to everyone who had ever spoken with him. He was an associate research professor of biomedical engineering and the director of Duke's Injury Biomechanics Laboratory. Dale believed in efficiency above all else. His white hair and facial stubble were all trimmed to the same short-cropped length, a process his wife could do for him at home without wasting time at a barber. Every day he wore the same type of black polo shirt, with black or gray cargo hiking pants that zipped off at the knee, and the same heavy black lace-up combat boots. This daily uniform saved time shopping or picking out clothes. The students in Dale's lab researched injury biomechanics: the various mechanisms by which human beings got injured and killed. About half the students worked on car crashes, and the other half, including me, focused on explosions.

For several months I had been working through medical case reports from underwater explosions. Scientists have long had a fairly clear idea of how well human beings can tolerate blasts in air, but not as much is known about human tolerance to blasts that occur underwater. Injured people and shrapnel chunks tend to stay where they fall when explosions occur on dry land, leaving a scene that can be safely examined later, whereas the waves and currents of the ocean quickly destroy all clues. The underwater science, therefore, had received much less attention.

But cases with eyewitness testimony, with survivors to describe the details of what had happened and where, were still useful. My first goal had been to compile as many cases of human exposures to underwater explosions as I could find. Then, I would use a complex piece of navy modeling software, called Dynamic System Advanced Simulation (DYSMAS), to calculate how strong of a blast each person experienced. The DYSMAS software could accept crucial information like the size of the charge and the depth at which it detonated, then model the resulting explosion. The output from the software about the strength of the shock wave could then be combined with the medical report describing how badly each person was hurt. These cases, examined together as a group, would allow me to find the blast levels at which humans in the water get injured or killed. The hope, at least at that time, was to turn the project into my PhD dissertation.

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