Over the past few weeks of faculty talks, we have learned about innovative research on organisms from archaea to song birds. One particularly fascinating creature, studied by Dr. Sheila Patek, is the mantis shrimp. These crustaceans have club-like appendages which they launch at prey with astounding speed and an acceleration of up to 10, 400 g’s. In fact, the force of their punches is strong enough to create cavitation bubbles in the water. With their collapse, a second explosive force hits nearby prey. From such a small creature, attacking with this magnitude of force and power seams unbelievable and even physically impossible.
With vigor, Patek discussed first what drew her into the field of mantis shrimp study and then the challenges and technologies required to unravel the mechanism for these punches. She discovered how the mantis shrimp wind up its exoskeleton as a kind of spring in order to propel its appendage forward. However, there are drawbacks to generating this much force. Not only does it take time to wind up its exoskeleton, but the shrimp cannot adjust its aim after striking as the motion is too fast for it to register its own movement.
Beyond being a fascinating biological mechanism, the shrimps skeletal spring has important engineering implications many of which Patek has worked on. Not only can mantis shrimp be a model for breaking strong materials, but their eyes can possibly be used to detect cancer. These shrimp have many useful applications; however, when Patek begun her research into shrimp she wasn’t doing it for the purpose of finding an application to help humans. She was driven by curiosity and awe to trying to understand these amazing shrimp. Later, she eventually made a compelling case to a US senator for why her research is useful and important. It was very illuminating to hear her speak about some her doubts about the relevance of her research. While people argue that studying almost everything will have human applications, sometimes it is very unclear what those might be if there are any. Others say that studying something solely for the sake of learning about it is inherently valuable. I often wrestle with these kinds of questions, and it was immensely helpful to hear someone as accomplished as Dr. Patek speak about her experience with research and with finding value in what she is doing.