The African spirit is powerful and indomitable; it speaks of innovation, perseverance, excellence and distinction. No wonder the saying…“Africa does not disappoint”. This African spirit is the spirit of John Dabiri the extremely talented genius that was born in 1980 to Nigerian parents who migrated to Toledo, Ohio at the time. John’s father was a Mechanical Engineer who taught math at a Community College, while managing other smaller jobs and his mother was a Computer Scientist. John developed a deep love for engineering by watching his father, who would occasionally do engineering work on the side. He acquired his early education at a small Baptist high school, where he graduated first in his class. In 1997, John was accepted by Princeton, the only university he had applied to at the time. He was primarily interested in rockets and Jets and once spent two summers doing research that included work on helicopter design. The summer after his junior year, he accepted a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) in Aeronautics at the California Institute of Technology rejecting an internship offer from Ford at the urging of a professor he respected. The summer project on the vortices created by a swimming jellyfish enticed him to the growing field of biomechanics. His love for engineering designed his career path and gave him a clear focus.
John is a graduate of Princeton University where he bagged a B.S.E. degree summa cum laude in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering in 2001. He then proceeded to gain a Master’s degree in Aeronautics at the California Institute of Technology; during his studies at Caltech, he received numerous scholarships and grants for research various fields. He also earned a Doctorate degree in Mechanics.
In 2005 John hit another milestone as a Professor of Aeronautics, Bioengineering and the Experimental Methods of Applied Physics at the California Institute of Technology. In 2010, he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship for his theoretical engineering work. The genius is the brain behind the Caltech Field Laboratory for Optimized Wind Energy (FLOWE) which he established in 2011; a wind farm which investigates the energy exchange in an array of vertical-axis wind turbines. The trail blazer has gathered numerous honours and awards , including The Young Investigator Award from the Office of Naval Research, a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), and was also named as one of Popular Science magazine’s “Brilliant 10” scientists in 2008. Bloomberg Business Week magazine listed him among its 2012 Technology Innovators.
The young Professor who is always quick to laugh is currently named on the “top scientist” list. He is a swift feet in soccer and a good basketball player but he admits albeit reticently that the one thing that challenges his exceptional intelligence is that he has not learnt to swim. According to him; “Unfortunately, I can’t swim. Yes I work on and around water. Fortunately, grad students swim, I have taken swimming lessons so I am more comfortable sinking than I was before…”Funny, isn’t it?
John strongly believes that it is necessary for first-graders to get interested in science; as he recounted in an interview with NPR, parents, teachers and indeed everyone must make an effort to influence children positively and raise a desire for science in them. “Having two parents there who encouraged me and in some cases forced me to study and to really take academics seriously, was very important at an early stage…and then going through school, the role of my teachers was always so important. I remember my fourth grade teacher … [she] made me believe that I was smart and so I took that and sort of owned that and tried to live up to the expectations that she had placed on me, even as a fourth grader. And so, we really want to grab hold of the imagination of the first and second graders at a very early stage, and get them excited about becoming scientists, as excited as they are about becoming a firefighter or the next rap star.” John fears that if a radical move is not made to instil the love and desire for science in school children soon in his words: “there will be a tsunami of kids who don’t learn, and then it is too late.”
His constant answer to the question his students ask frequently; if humans will someday fly around using jet packs is; “I do think that’s where we are headed, highways decades from now will be like the buggy era. But there are far more pressing things than jet packs that we can do to help.”
He is also very active in his church’s mentoring program; The Faith Foundation.
John is well known for his research of the hydrodynamics of Jelly fish propulsion and the design of a vertical-axis wind farm adapted from schooling fish. He uses his expertise to try to understand how animals move in their natural environments. While researching the swimming patterns of fish, he recently came to a surprising insight which led to a conclusion that the way people see wind power especially is wrong. He says; “Conventional wind farms are designed to minimize the turbulence caused by interactions between turbines and that creates an obvious problem”, he says; “You space them out as far as possible. If you’re talking about a wind turbine that has a 100-meter diameter, then you’re talking about as much as a mile between wind turbines. That’s a lot of space that could be used to generate electricity, but can’t be because of these turbulent interactions.”
John has now partnered with Windspire Energy for use of three of 24 turbines that stand approximately 30 feet tall and 4 feet wide. He also started a company, Scalable Wind Solutions, to commercialize the software used to optimally place the wind turbines. This laudable invention attracted the attention of the U.S Navy and they decided to fund the development of an underwater craft that propels on these concepts, using up to 30% less energy.
There’s obviously more to come in the tale of this young Professor and his love –and use- of science. John Dabiri is a man on a mission, and given his precedents, the world will yet hear his exploits!!!