The way a poet seeks an apt metaphor, biomechanics researcher Mimi Koehl finds poetry and truth in the physical structures of living things. The Gill Professor of Integrative Biology at the University of California, Berkeley, Koehl once said that the organisms she studies “are beautiful if you simply look at them — but even more beautiful when you understand how they work.” A past recipient of a MacArthur “genius award,” Koehl combines techniques from fluid and solid mechanics with those from biology, working in the laboratory and, famously, the field, because to understand how form affects function, “you need to know what [an organism] does in nature.”
Koehl’s work has yielded important clues about how, for example, crustaceans pluck odors from the water and how sea anemones withstand crashing waves. In theorizing how insects developed wings, she conducted experiments deemed “elaborate and elegant” by the late evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould.
Appreciating the natural world’s uncanny ability to solve problems, Koehl is a co-founder of CiBER, a Berkeley research and teaching center focusing on the new field of bio-inspired design of man-made devices. A member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Koehl won the 2002 Borelli Award for outstanding career accomplishment in biomechanics, the 2008 Martin Award for research that created a paradigm shift in aquatic sciences and the 2009 Muybridge Award, the highest honor of the International Society for Biomechanics.
Initially an art major at Gettysburg College, she switched to biology and earned a doctorate in zoology at Duke University. In 2006 she published Wave-Swept Shore, a book that explains the challenging lives of sea creatures along a stretch of Pacific coast through a simple lens called “How?”