Dr. Koehl's research focuses on the biomechanics of how organisms function in their natural habitats.
At the interface of biology and engineering
How do organisms interact with their physical environments? What are the physical rules that can be applied to different kinds of organisms about how body structure affects mechanical function in nature? Dr. Koehl's interdisciplinary experiments combine biology, physics, and engineering to answer these questions.
She studies organisms in their natural habitats as well as in the lab, and has just returned from a summer of field work on the coral reefs in Hawaii and the kelp beds along the coast of Washington.
Dr. Koehl uses physical models as well as organisms to study a variety of problems. In one of the studies in her lab, undergraduates are flying physical models of extinct feathered dinosaurs in her wind tunnel to examine various aerodynamic hypotheses about the evolutionary origins of flight.
Structure and function
Dr. Koehl investigates structure and function on several levels, from tissue, to organismal, to environmental.
For example, she is researching the fluid dynamics of how odor molecules carried in the turbulent water flowing in marine habitats are sniffed by organisms like lobsters. She is analyzing how the mechanical designs of their olfactory antennules (their "noses") affect how they capture these odors in their environment.
Dr. Koehl: Q&A
Why did you decide to become a scientist?
I was an art major as an undergraduate, but had to take a science class to meet my “distribution” requirements. I took biology and discovered that exploring how natural forms worked was much more satisfying for me than pursuing my fascination with natural forms through art.
What led you to the questions you are now investigating in your research?
Some questions grow from patterns or phenomena that I observe in the field -- I want to understand the mechanisms responsible. Other questions come to me when I hear talks by scientists or read research papers -- my biomechanical approach might provide a new way of addressing a mystery in their field.
How does your research affect your classroom and/or lab?
I try to incorporate examples of the latest scientific discoveries and the still-unanswered questions in my teaching, and to stress the process of how we scientists ask questions and seek their answers. Because I am actively engaged in research myself, I hope that my excitement about the process of scientific discovery is conveyed to my students.
What do you enjoy most about your research?
I’m always learning new things, and I get to work with really interesting collaborators and students who make me think. I also love the beauty of the organisms I study and the habitats where they live.
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September / October 2007