How To Run A Harvard Lab From The Battlefield

And build a "concussion on a chip" in the process. Multitasking Kevin Kit Parker, a former major with the Rhode Island National Guard, doesn't let an Afghanistan deployment stop him from working in a bioengineering lab.

As a former major in the Rhode Island National Guard, Kevin Kit Parker has been called into duty in Afghanistan three times in the last decade. Somehow, he also finds time to run a 20-member bioengineering lab at Harvard that’s innovating itself onto the cutting edge of microfluidics, tissue engineering and biomechanics. "For the last 10 years it’s been more than science--I’ve had to fight a war at the same time." So how does he manage it all?

Busily!

In December of 2010, Parker, currently a member of the United States Army Reserve and a professor of applied mathematics at the United States Military Academy at West Point, was in Japan at a conference preparing to present his theoretical model of cell building to a room full of scientists. As his host ambled through a lengthy introduction, his BlackBerry buzzed. "While they were introducing me to give this talk… I got an email saying, 'You’re going to Afghanistan next month.'"

Parker's lab (together with a Caltech group across the country) recently made headlines when they built a cyborg robot out of sheets of silicone and slices of living, lab-grown muscle, that mimicked the swimming strokes of a living jellyfish. Also on slow boil at the Parker group is research on wound-healing bandages, cellular simulators to observe the effect of blast injuries on neurons, and strong, sturdy nano fabrics spun out by what looks like a cotton candy machine. Recently, Parker was part of a Wyss Institute research team that won a $37 million DARPA grant to build a 10-organ "human on a chip" which would mimic, on a reduced scale, the physiology of the human body. In between, Parker has led counterinsurgency maneuvers in Afghanistan and used some of what he learned in the field to help Massachusetts State Police combat organized gang crime.

It comes as no surprise that Parker grew up multitasking. “As a child, I played sports, and I played army and had a lab in my garage,” he says. “I had a Sears chemistry set. I used to scoop up dead animals and dissect them.” Majors in physics and engineering led to a PhD and post doc at Vanderbilt. Parker had just secured an appointment at Harvard when he was called into Afghanistan in 2002. He told Harvard to wait a year, went out into battle, then came back to pick up his post.

Parker's first focus as a young scientist at Harvard was cardiac cell biology and tissue engineering. But he found himself getting called on by his army colleagues to study trauma effects of war on the brain. In the beginning, Parker resisted. “Finally a friend of mine got wounded,” Parker says, which was when he relented. "Think about this. I have all these resources available. What kind of jerk am I that I only work on the things that I want to work on?" Parker decided to focus his work on what he knew best--creating tissue-engineered sections of tissue--not of the heart, as he did in his PhD days, but of the brain.

“I told DARPA, 'Listen, to do brain injury research, if I start blowing up goats in Harvard yard, I’m not going to last long.'” To better understand brain injuries, his first goal was to recreate, on the benchtop, the impact an explosion would have on brain tissue. And so members of Parker’s lab, young veterans among them, put their heads together and combined what they knew about explosives and tissue engineering.

In September 2010, while the project was still in its early stages, Parker testified to a Congressional committee on what science knew about traumatic brain injuries. The issue is a complex and understudied scientific problem because, Parker said, "…It can require a knowledge of explosives, shock physics, cell and tissue mechanics, molecular biology, neurobiology, psychology, and neurodegenerative diseases. I am not an expert in any of these fields, but I know a few words from each and that might be about as good as it gets."

The result is what Parker calls a “concussion on a chip”--a scaled-down explosion applied to a lab-grown bit of brain tissue. “We hit paydirt,” he says of the two papers the group published in 2011. “I think we had a really big breakthrough.  Everyone was excited because it pointed to some drug targets some pathways that were interesting … based on what we found an explosion might feel like to a neuron.”

The composition of Parker's lab group reflects his enthusiasm for collaborative, interdisciplinary research. It relies on the wide-ranging skills of biologists, chemists, engineers, and even employed a dentist at one point. ‘We’ve got a lot of crazy cats in there,” Parker says. In fact, that's his recipe to stay ahead: "The cutting edge of a field is often putting two fields together--things that don't belong." For example, his lab studies cells using an algorithm law enforcement agencies use to do qualitative analysis of fingerprints.

To keep up with his ever active spray of ideas, he makes sure his group works hard. “Innovation--the idea, the breakthrough--comes like a thief in the night, and you better be in the lab when it gets there. Or you’re going to miss it,” he says. “If you work a 40-hour work week in the lab, don't expect to have a big breakthrough.” Also required: steely guts to chase a wild idea that has a high chance of failure. "There’s a pile of broken stuff in my laboratory from everything that didn’t work. If you’re afraid to fail, you will never innovate. Never. You will only read about the stuff that works."

For all the superhuman standards he sets for himself and his team, Parker admits he's mortal and that being gone for 20 months in total over the last 10 years while climbing the tenure ladder hasn't been quite the breeze. His battle on three fronts: “fighting the war on tenure, terror and my own ignorance has really been challenging,” he says. Every time he leaves for battle, Parker makes a new will, and writes a recommendation letter for every one of scientists in his lab group, “so their career can go on even if I don’t come back.”

It helps that Parker has organized his group so that it can chug along without his supervision. “I’m really adamant about teaching my postdocs leadership. And the test is: When I go to war can they run the group?” Parker says. Since 2009, Parker says the lab has placed 10 members in tenure-track positions.

While all his work has been rewarding, Parker has had to make some compromises. He says he had to skip chasing some ideas he had because he had to take off. But sometimes, his compromises have worked. To feed his growing interest in marine biology, for example, he's wanted to go scuba diving "looking for interesting animals to build." Instead he found himself stomping through the mountains in Afghanistan. "The compromise is I spend Saturday mornings in the aquarium with my daughter instead of scuba diving off the coast of Florida or Australia or wherever.”

Has it been worth it? Parker says yes. "In many ways I’ve been better at Harvard because I’ve been in Afghanistan and I done good in Afghanistan because I’ve been in Harvard." But which would he prefer? "Harvard is a lot better than getting shot at for a living. I love it here. No one’s shooting at me, and it’s a lot of fun."

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about technology and science. Follow on Twitter, Google+.

[Image: Rommel Canlas via Shutterstock]

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