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Sheila Patek: Research With a Powerful Punch

New biology faculty member is finding answers to the mechanics behind the amazing mantis shrimp

Sheila Patek photographed at her lab filled with mantis shrimp in the Biological Sciences building. Photo by Jon Gardiner/Duke University Photography
Sheila Patek photographed at her lab filled with mantis shrimp in the Biological Sciences building. Photo by Jon Gardiner/Duke University Photography

The last time Sheila Patek was at Duke, she was riding a unicycle across a parking lot to fulfill the infamous "circus trick" requirement for Steve Nowicki's Ph.D. students. Now 12 years later, she's back and heading up her own lab, where she studies the ocean-dwelling crustaceans, including one that throws one of nature's hardest punches.

In her time away from Duke, she's headed labs at Berkeley and UMass-Amherst, given a TED talk (see below), appeared on TV and radio shows, had two children, and ridden thousands of miles on her bicycle (but none on the unicycle).

Nowicki says, "I'm delighted that she's come back. She does work that fits extremely well in the context of Duke biology and Duke science -- she builds bridges across diverse areas."

Patek is delighted to be back as well. "There's a real openness to cross-disciplinary fertilization here that is not a given at some universities," she says. "If I want to collaborate with someone in physics or engineering, every time I've knocked on those doors, the doors have flown open."

Growing up near New York City in an outdoorsy, musical, non-scientific family, Patek learned early to play piano and clarinet; she filled her free time with reading and thinking. "I had this notion I wanted to be a scientist," she says, "but I had no idea what that meant."

She figured it out in college and grad school, where she managed to merge her passions for the clarinet, the ocean, and biology into investigations of the acoustics of ocean-dwelling animals, including the spiny lobster.

Today she still studies the ocean acoustics and lobsters that occupied her in grad school, and she's added biomechanics and mantis shrimp to her repertoire. Mantis shrimp are crustaceans that smack and spear their prey with specialized arm-like appendages that move as fast as 45 mph -- under water -- one of the fastest movements in the animal kingdom.

Patek uses biology, physics, and engineering to understand how the mantis shrimp moves its punching and spearing appendage so quickly and forcefully (latches and springs) and how the impact can break a snail shell (fluid dynamics add extra punch to the punch).

And she still plays music. "I consider it a good week if I play piano, really focused, for 20 minutes each day," she says. "It's going be a while before I get space and time in my career and family life, but it's still a huge passion."

This summer, Patek drove her menagerie of mantis shrimp from Amherst to Durham. In their new digs at Duke, the mantis shrimp hide in a plastic tubes in their aquariums, emerging if they see something tasty, such as a snail, or threatening, such as an aquarium net. When they smack the object, it sounds like a finger snap.

Patek also brought two graduate students and two post-docs from Amherst to her new lab at Duke, and she's is looking forward to adding some undergraduates. "I always have a lot of undergraduates in the lab," she says. "They're a breath of fresh air -- they come in with wonderful curiosity and intensity, uninformed, which generates new insights, energy, and fun new ideas."

But studying marine crustaceans is not all lab work and no scuba diving: Patek does fieldwork with students all over the world. Each of the sites has its own quirks and endearments.

At the Great Barrier Reef, she works on a remote tropical island that is "complete paradise." In Panama, she and her students need armed guards because the field site is near a bad neighborhood in Colon.  And there are crocodiles. But, she says with enthusiasm: "If you're interested in mantis shrimp, it's really neat -- our field site there is completely carpeted with mantis shrimp."

Much of the press Patek has received focuses on the amazingly speedy movements of the mantis shrimp and jumping ants, but she's not looking for world records. "I think there's an assumption that because I study ultrafast movements that I care about finding recording-breaking movements," she says. "That is totally not the motivation."

What gets her excited is the idea of understanding both the evolutionary history of an animal and the physics that limit and describe how it works. She wants to use this understanding to inform the field of biomimetics -- designing structures based on things found in nature.

"When you look at an amazing structure in biology, you're looking at evolutionary history and it takes a ton of work to figure out what is really relevant for its function and how to draw principles from that," she says. "One of my dreams is to help guide this field so that we're not looking at biology as if it's an engineering optimum."

Those ultrafast movements do engage the public, however, and that's important to Patek, which is why she makes time for journalists and TV crews. "Much of my research has been taxpayer supported, and this is how I give it back to the world," she says. "I'm not going to cure cancer through my research, but I provide a wonderful window into the biological world, the world of discovery, the excitement of knowledge."

Patek is married to Charlie Nunn, whom she met in grad school at Duke. He's a professor in evolutionary anthropology and the Duke Global Health Institute.