The lion’s mane jellyfish is the world’s largest jellyfish and, as John Dabiri from Stanford University can attest, its tentacles pack a very painful sting. During a photoshoot for Popular Science, a photographer convinced Dabiri to hold a small individual in his gloved hands, while sitting in shallow water and clad only in swimming trunks. “The tentacles were dripping on my legs and thighs and I got dozens of stings, mostly on my crotch,” he says. “After that, I’ve learned to say no to photographers.”
Both the setting and the stings were unusual for Dabiri. He’s not a marine biologist but a mechanical engineer, and he studies jellyfish while they’re in aquarium tanks and he’s on dry land. His discoveries have cast these gelatinous animals as the most efficient swimmers in the sea, as stealthy predators whose command of water currents can disrupt entire ecosystems, and as sources of inspiration for medical devices. Just this year, he made a truly surprising discovery that upturns our understanding of how animals swim, with important implications for the design of underwater vehicles.
Inheriting a curiosity for all things mechanical from his engineer dad, Dabiri was that kid—the one who would dismantle his Christmas toys to see how they worked. After graduating from Princeton, he fully expected to return to his hometown of Toledo, Ohio to be an auto mechanic, until one of his professors convinced him to try a life of research. “I just didn’t realize I could do work like this and have someone pay you for it,” he says.