Antonia Zaferiou: A Journey of Movements

Postdoctoral Fellow, Antonia Zaferiou, perfectly blends her interests to find her true passion

My childhood dream was to have a different job each day: dancer on Monday, singer on Tuesday, architect on Wednesday, doctor on Thursday, and artist on Friday. I had loving parents who encouraged me to dance, sing, build, deconstruct, and explore. I was enveloped in a world of artistic expression of moving and singing within, and through, different types of music. I am thankful that this cascade of influential experiences and people in my life eventually led me into my current fields of engineering and biomechanics. It all started in a dark corner of my grandparents’ home in Flushing, Queens, in New York City.AZ

I have fond memories of the basement in that house, which lent itself to highly competitive cousin ping pong tournaments, and building fort labyrinths in the empty basement bar. We were initially confined to an area including oval-framed, yellow-tinted grayscale portraits of distant relatives on the wall, a ping pong table, a stationary bicycle, a small couch (for whoever was on deck to play ping pong next) and the oversized bar we called “the cave.” When we were about nine, we were officially allowed into the back room.

At first we were all pretty scared of this room; it had been dark and elusive for so long. We would fight over who had the responsibility to go back there to retrieve the ping pong ball that snuck through the tiny mouse-sized hole at the bottom of the door to the back room. I’m not sure why we wouldn’t cover this hole with a couch cushion, but I suppose they were all used up for building our fortifications. The room’s cold concrete floor sent ominous shivers up our spines. There was a deep walk-in closet that smelled like something strange and old immediately to the right after entering. Now we recognize that smell as the odor from mothballs; it was a perfect grandchild deterrent. Beyond the closet, there was a large table centered in the room, loud laundry machines, a large sink, a dangling single lightbulb over the table, and a monstrous oil burner in the corner.

My grandparents used this room to teach us some important life skills. My grandmother taught us how to sew and do laundry, and one day, bored with our sewing assignment, my older cousin dared me to sneak past the oil burner. Clinging to the wall opposite the oil burner, carefully shuffling past its radiating warmth, I discovered a dark room with another dangling single light bulb that I was too short to reach. It was, in fact, my grandfather’s mini machine shop. The room had a single counter I couldn’t quite reach, and tools hung organized on the wall, the only one of which I could reach was his meter-long T-square. After telling my grandfather about my discovery, he started to teach me how to use some of the tools, like the vice, and how to create technical drafts with his T-square. I found out that he was an engineer, which meant that he could design, make, and fix things.

Around the same time, I can also recall the excitement and butterflies I felt when I was deemed ready for ballet pointe shoes. I was convinced that these shoes were going to be so much fun. Ballerinas effortlessly floated on the tips of toes, elongating their lines, spinning like tops, all due to these magical shoes. I had been so excited that for years prior, I would secretly build my own pointe shoes by stuffing Legos and blocks into my ballet slippers. Little did I know, the actual shoes would inflict the same amount of pain on my toes as did the Legos.

The dance teacher told my mother that because I was about to embark on this new pointe-shoes adventure, it would be very important for me to take more ballet classes and keep my weight to a minimum. I became a weight-obsessed awkward pre-teen, terrified to wear sandals that would expose my raw blistered feet. After years of this routine I still felt the ability to be lost in music when I would perform or take a dance class. But by the time I turned 16, I grew weary of ballet’s strict guidelines of artistic expression. Luckily I would find another outlet for this lifelong passion, only this time, I would find it in science.

As a junior in high school I had an energetic physics teacher who understood the importance of hands-on activities to embed physics fundamentals. He once brought us outside and challenged us to try to break an egg by throwing it as hard as we could at the blanket other students held as a target. Through exercises like this, I found – and was surprised by the fact – that physics came to me so easily. Ballet training developed my habits of perseverance and perfectionism at an early age. But finally I was a natural at something. I now had the tools to relate to the motion I observed in our surroundings, and indeed felt as a dancer.

I decided to take AP Physics the following year. My teacher, Ms. Pritchard, was a female engineer, and I suspect that she had a lot to do with the decision to apply to engineering programs. It’s not as if I remember the exact moment that this occurred to me, because at the time I was applying to 17 schools with interest in majoring in dance, singing, education, psychology, and/or physical therapy. But interacting with this teacher was when it all came together. I now realize that all of the moments leading up to that class – loving design and building, understanding what an engineer was from an early age, and being a natural at physics – were finally working together, pushing me towards my eventual course of study in engineering. Ms. Pritchard seemed to be able to have a career in both engineering and teaching, so maybe I could do the same. We were assigned a project to explain physics fundamentals as they related to our hobbies. I presented the “physics of ballet,” but didn’t realize that this was more than a project. It was foreshadowing of things to come, the very things I now study.

I strategically applied to The Cooper Union early decision for mechanical engineering. Just as ballet is a good base for other forms of dance, engineering, I thought, would provide a robust foundation to pursue other careers, and provide me with a hirable skill-set upon graduation. I was attracted to Cooper Union because it offered a full-tuition scholarship and was situated in the East Village. With its pay-it-forward model, I was excited to attend, and to be able to give back to the small and rigorous school after graduating. I knew that engineers help create the world that we want and need, but I wasn’t so sure how much creativity could be involved.

In my first semester at Cooper Union I was randomly assigned into a section of an “Engineering Design and Problem Solving” class led by an adjunct professor who studies sport biomechanics. This put biomechanics on my radar as a potential field of study I could use to weave dance into mechanical engineering. In the meantime, I persevered through chemistry and math classes that were completely unnatural to me. Finally, when classes became more hands-on, visual, and design-oriented, I flourished and acknowledged how natural and exciting engineering was to me. The professor who introduced me to biomechanics also helped me secure a research internship at a dance biomechanics lab. Eventually I was an undergraduate attendee of a national biomechanics conference.

At this conference I saw a flyer for a PhD studentship that must have been MADE for me: “PhD studentship focused on biomechanics of performing arts.” If someone had asked me to do so, I could not have written a more perfect opportunity for my interests. The next day I met the professor who posted it, introduced myself with my resume, shared a lunch with her, and secured the position. She has remained my advisor and mentor throughout my pursuit of a PhD. She guided me through developing my specific aims and designing my experiment to mitigate measurement error and challenge the performer sufficiently to reveal preferred mechanical strategies, using dancers as a model system.

Ballet dancers spend years undergoing very specific training. This leads to very well practiced, deliberate, and goal-directed movement patterns that allow for systematic research on the subject. Turning is something we all have to do in daily life to circumvent obstacles and navigate our surroundings. Dancers can perform multiple rotations supported by a very small base, and typically perform these turns in a position that makes it challenging to maintain balance. Our goal is to understand how dancers overcome these extreme challenges, in hopes of helping others who have physical limitations that reduce their ability to turn in daily life.

I have been using my mechanical engineering foundation to uncover the control strategies dancers use to push on the ground prior to different types of turns, and how they balance during these turns. I have also collaborated with the VA to uncover how older adults perform changes of direction during walking. I strive to creatively convey my findings so that a person who wants to learn how to turn can do so in a fun way. This may include developing systems that interact with a user in real-time to communicate mechanics through sound.

Through these collective pursuits I see that my creativity can be intertwined with research, so that I am a hybrid scientist-engineer-dancer-teacher. My dream is to uncover mechanisms as a scientist, and design creative interactive products, to provide these findings to an end-user in an artistic way. For example, I have been developing a system to provide real-time sound feedback to communicate successful patterns of how to push on the ground for balancing, weight shifting, and performing dance turns. By encoding certain force patterns into music patterns, a dancer can interact with music to learn about movement.

As a fellow of a NSF GK-12 and USC Viterbi grant, I had been given an unbelievable opportunity to partner with a local middle school science teacher to infuse engineering into the curriculum and learn how communicate my research to larger audiences (especially and arguably, the toughest crowd – middle school kids). They ask the best questions, ranging from, “Why do we close our eyes and tear when we yawn?” “How do rubber erasers erase?” and, “Can black holes collide?” to “Why are you studying how dancers turn?”

While I have learned a great deal from these students, the thing I can’t seem to overcome is the realization of how stacked the deck is against these kids. Engineering is not on their radar as something “cool” to do, especially for the girls. So I hope my work can inspire the idea that a really creative career can emerge from pursuing interests outside of school, in tandem with hard work in the classroom.

I believe that efforts to infuse engineering into K-12 curriculum, the popularity of characters like “Tony Stark,” and engineering-oriented toys like “GoldieBlox,” are monumentally important to promote engineering as the amazing and empowering field I know it to be. After all, not every student is blessed with supportive parents, an insightful and handy grandfather, and the opportunities I was afforded growing up in a good school district. I believe it is our responsibility as scientists to ensure that today’s generation of ballerinas can grow into the engineers of tomorrow.

Antonia Zaferiou
Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Mechanical Engineering
University of Michigan

Originally from New York, Antonia earned a B.E in Mechanical Engineering from the Cooper Union and recently earned a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Southern California. Her dissertation focused on the body’s control and dynamics during turning tasks. She is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow and Visiting Scholar of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Michigan. She aspires to help individuals with control deficits by creatively communicating results of mechanically-founded investigation of movement performance.  Antonia is dedicated to teach scientific fundamentals in creative ways and is thrilled to participate in various STE(A)M outreach activities.

Fausto Martin De Sanctis: Reflections on a Career and Science

Fausto Martin De Sanctis reflects on his own past and the need to find one’s balance in order to use research and science for improving mankind.

Fausto
Author Fausto Martin De Sanctis

I became a judge, at the age of 25, early after being a public defender for one year and two months. I remember sitting in the hearing room and an attorney came to me and asked: “Could you call the judge, sir?” I immediately replied: “Yes, you are talking to him.”

This made me realize that usually peoples’ expectations about what a judge looks like is different from reality. With such little life experience, I was afraid of committing unintentional judicial mistakes. Being a judge too young was a personal decision, a challenge for one who always lived unhappily with inequities. As a young judge, I traveled to France for a one month French language program in Amboise. I stayed in a traditional French family who were wonderful hosts. The husband and wife, a doctor and painter respectively, had a 14 year-old son. We all got along really well and had much fun. Sometimes when I was not attending the program, the son would try to embarrass me by leaving the house and ringing the bell of another house, running away, and leaving me to apologize for his “bad” behavior, a really uncomfortable situation.

Although I had some amazing times with the family, I was surrounded by tensions and anxieties. It was a dramatic moment when I realized I had to reconcile the challenges of my new career with my level of life-experience. I was even more self-critical trying to do my best.

I soon realized that learning kept me balanced and allowed me to become more fully aware of real life. Learning also was continuous; I could keep to date with changes in the law and new doctrines. So seeking answers through knowledge made me more confident.

I was trying to surpass this initial state of uncertainty by transforming my ways of acting and thinking in a reasonable way. Little by little, I became committed to research as a means of preparing myself for new challenges. This commitment made me behave with an active attitude. I was a creature that could rely on science as as a means to permanent improvement: science and I made the perfect match.

Science was absorbing me, my soul, and gave me the basis to act as a judge based on a better doctrine, not only jurisprudence. As time went by, I gained in reputation, credibility and legitimacy to the point that when I was leaving the trial Court for a promotion to the Federal Appellate Court, defendants came to me on two different occasions and expressed their disappointment because I wouldn’t be able to rule their cases anymore. This, I can say, was one of the best moments of my judicial career. I was being acknowledged from the people who would be judged by me.

Research is a tool to understand and shape society, which can be identified with the help of science. Research, by investigating and questioning life, like art, defines humans. It is both heritage and history, and involves aesthetics, feelings, imagination and achievement. Certain knowledge is required to understand the world, past, present and future.

Many times, I tried to prioritize my personal life such as family, religion, and home. However, I was conscious that I also had to think about my career to get a balanced life. We cannot focus on one side and forget the other.

Deep-down I knew the responsibility of searching for constant self-improvement could help me find the peace of mind that I needed. I always knew that this is not a done dish but something that is constant. It requires day-to-day reflection research as well as observing life. That is an essential task for every day.

I know it is not an easy job. We are sometimes tempted to escape or rebel against everything that defies our normal comfort zone due to common high levels of stress. Being impulsive impels us to thoughtless actions or misplaced complaints. In order to live a wonderful and rich life, I spend everyday trying to be the protagonist with the goal of making things better.

As a judge, I could easily believe that my line of work means we are omnipotent, superior and invulnerable, but I knew that this belief would take me to a life of solitude, with sadness, emptiness and hassles. Hence it is important to renounce constantly our own caprices.

Investigating and questioning the values in our world is an ongoing requirement of being a judge. You have to make a decision to best serve society. Life without this is less meaningful.

We know that mirror reflects light. It is not the light. It’s just a reflector. If there is no obstacle all light will be reflected. But what is light if not values and knowledge we can infer and even acquire? Acknowledging the need for society to improve is already a big step. Like a mirror, we must allow all light to flow, through our voice, which address the values for a better life.

In presenting this single story, I have strived to bring out my constant, daily concern in these modern times, times that force us to take action—action other than the quest for some sort of abstract happiness that finds its expression in derision or the misfortune of another. Welfare is itself a form of heritage to be sought by all. We should take action to help one another and to do good deeds, even if small, to make the world a better place. This is not a small task but a vast and ongoing human endeavor. I believe that research is an important tool that can really advance the progress of mankind.

Michael Charles Tobias and Jane Gray Morrison: Living in a World of Science, Ethics, Heartbreak and Love

Michael Charles Tobias and Jane Gray Morrison find love and a scientific partnership amidst some of the world’s most devastating ecological crises.

Tobias and Morrison
Photo by Jean Morrison

When Jane Gray Morrison and I met in 1986, I think it’s a safe scientific bet to say it was love instantly. I would argue plus or minus 30 seconds, perhaps. When we met, I was full-stream in a career encompassing five interrelated areas of passion: global ecological research, teaching, writing, filmmaking and exploration. Jane was in Vienna studying opera. On our first date I had Jane holding a newborn snow leopard cub behind the scenes at the San Francisco Zoo. This was a pivotal moment for us both. Snow leopards are a species numbering fewer than 4,000, and there is nothing quite like an encounter with the healthy cub of a (tragically) endangered species to win a woman’s heart.

I’ve always sworn to the fact that the soul speaks when it is spoken to. The cub, all sentient beings affect me, and Jane. I was born and raised in San Francisco and when I was about three years of age, my father took me down to the zoo one foggy morning where I witnessed a wolf in captivity for the first time. This Canadian gray wolf exhibited (what I later learned was called) stereotypies, a condition of desperate boredom and fatalism, resulting from being caged. In humans it is comparable to a range of neurological disorders. In captive animals, it is true suffering and can easily lead to premature death, after years of sheer torture.

I asked my father, “Why was this amazing animal in jail?” My Dad responded, “Welcome to the world, kid.”

I was horrified and the shock of that encounter, transformed me instantly into an animal rights activist, an ecologist, and a deeply distressed person. Once you encounter a horror-story in the form of a magnificent animal being trapped, stressed, and, in essence, tortured, by our species in the name of “environmental education” or, worse, “entertainment” – it is a deplorable discovery.

Ever since that epiphany with a wolf, I have researched the global ecological conditions of our species in the context of the tens-of-millions of other species; trying to understand the serious challenges we pose to the biosphere in an age of the Anthropocene, and looking towards pragmatic, urgent solutions to those problems.

Romance amidst the penguin guano and tragedy

Penguins
At the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by M.C.Tobias

Following our “date” with the snow leopard cub, I persuaded Jane that she might enjoy researching in ankle-deep guano the behavior of penguins. She wasn’t sure how “romantic” that would be, but judging by the success of our snow leopard outing, it was clear to me that Jane and the penguins would get along magnificently. I was not wrong.

At the Argentine Base Esperanza on the Western Peninsula of Antarctica, Jane and I hunkered down amid one of the largest Adélie penguin rookeries on the entire Antarctic continent, with some quarter-million breeding pairs.

One of three members of the Pygoscelis genus, dating to at least 19 million years ago as a species, the Adélie penguin at the time of our research, was in decline. Climate change, ozone depletion, even the veritable eruption of eco-tourism– all put in doubt the future viability of their kind. Adélie penguins are one of seventeen penguin species in the world and are best noted for their Chaplin-esque saunter.

We made several films in Antarctica, including a MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour (today called the PBS NewsHour) special on ozone depletion over Antarctica, as well as a one-hour PBS special entitled “Antarctica: The Last Continent,” which put eco-tourism, as well as the National Science Foundation on notice: Issues, including open dumping and burning at the bases – the smoke harmful to endemic species, among other things – were all vividly examined.

Two of the most graphic images in our “Antarctica: The Last Continent” film revealed an Adélie penguin struggling through an open-pit garbage dump at McMurdo Base. It just sat there, sprawling in a multiplicity of cast off metal junk, used barrels with leaking toxins, fencing material, sharp dangerous garbage right on the water’s edge. It was insane and to film a penguin trapped in that was beyond heartbreaking.

At the Argentine Base, having heard a rumor that something equally sinister was occurring, I placed our film crew in a line-of-sight position and sure enough, one morning “it” happened again: an Argentine military helicopter crew, from the back of our ship, flew directly over a penguin rookery, unnecessarily very low, in a positively idiotic and sadistic effort to frighten the birds. As the cameras rolled we saw penguins fleeing down the rocky slope in a panic towards the water; their frantic dispersion resulting in the death of penguin chicks, crushed eggs, and young chicks left parentless and fully exposed to swooping Skuas (a large Antarctic seabird of the Genus Stercorarius that preys upon penguin chicks, alive or dead).

Apparently, one soldier had said this kind of thing was “fun.” Stupid and insane is a more appropriate description. Indeed, at another base in the Antarctic, tourists apparently overheard one group of base personnel describing how they had deliberately placed an explosive device at a penguin rookery and detonated the bomb “in order to see penguins fly.”

Yellow Eyed Penguin. Photo Copyright Brent Beaven and Kari Beaven
Penguin on a New Zealand Off-Shore Island. Photo Copyright Brent Beaven and Kari Beaven

Such indications of human nature in the 20th-century, have only gotten more outrageous, which makes it rather awkward and uncomfortable discussing a love affair, or even presuming to share a smile in the face of a magnificent Earth that is under siege by our species. The dark underbellies of human behavior can be so rough, at times grotesque in its violence meted out to others, that research is tainted by the silence of pain; observations marred by the bias that comes from anger.

Both Jane and I have struggled with this, as do most ecologists we know throughout the world. Although our struggle has a kind of burden, we sometimes feel few share, namely, the belief system that not only are species and populations critical, but so is every individual, to the chain of life. And so we have truly had to cope with the fact we are both firmly committed, not only to conservation biology, but also to animal rights; to saving huge areas the size of national parks and wilderness areas, but also trying to save every living individual we can.

To Earth, with Love

When Jane and I returned from our Antarctic work we soon embarked on another, longer “date.” This time it was a ten-hour dramatic miniseries (starring William Shatner and the voice of Faye Dunaway) on the Gaia Hypothesis, the notion that the Earth is a living organism with its own destiny. Jane and I traveled throughout the world with film crews, documenting everything from examining pollution in Chesapeake Bay to exploring some of the earliest evidence for the origins of life on Earth on a glacier in Chamonix. The project encompassed two-dozen countries

In the process of these epic “dates,” Jane and I have fallen madly in love with this planet at levels that have continued to galvanize our passions for anthrozoology – the study of human life in the context of the remarkable biodiversity with whom we have the amazing privilege of sharing our time on this Earth.

Jane and I, the essence of our love affair and friendship with each other, has manifested a tandem torch-bearing volition to see more national parks and protected areas created; and to safeguard and liberate animals, to the extent possible. All those fabulous, sentient beings who find themselves trapped in a never ending cycle of captivity and exploitation.

In some of our films and books including the recent Springer book, Why Life Matters: Fifty Ecosystems of the Heart & Mind, and through our nearly 17-years running the Dancing Star Foundation, Jane and I have put our passion for one another out there into the world of our research, and environmental education, hoping to share our love of the Earth with everyone we meet, and can hopefully reach.

With the Pope’s latest Encyclical on the Environment, and a rising consciousness everywhere, we remain guardedly optimistic that humanity’s ability to love and celebrate nature and natural beauty may well be key to the thriving of all species on this planet.

When I reflect back to our first month of “dating” among snow leopards and penguins, it is characteristic of the nearly thirty years of subsequent collaborative work Jane, who would become my wife, and I would together embrace – and continue to do so to this day.

©Michael Charles Tobias, PhD
©Jane Gray Morrison

Erich Ritter: Getting Back in the Water

Shark-behavior researcher and enthusiast Erich Ritter learns how to dive through adversity, injury and a wall of skepticism to get back in the water.

New PictureSince early childhood, I have been fascinated by water. As a child all I ever wanted was to be at Lake Zurich, Switzerland, in summer and winter. I learned how to swim when I was three years old, and got my first dive mask at five.

One day–when I was seven–I saw sharks on TV for the first time and was more than just intrigued at what I saw. I did not really understand what the narrator of that show meant when he described these animals as vicious and dangerous, since what I felt was altogether different. This first encounter with sharks on television triggered something in me that would last a life time. After one episode of Flipper when a shark got killed by the porpoise, I actually felt sorry for the shark.

From then on I collected everything ever written on sharks, but since most books were written in English–which back then was not taught at school–I pretty much had to translate everything myself. To this day I kept my dictionary which serves as a vivid reminder of those early days.

When I was 12 years old my mind was set: go to the university and study sharks. Convinced that the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich was the right school, I signed up for their biology program and was eager to get started. But what a wake-up call that was! Studying biology did not entail what I had anticipated. I still remember the frustration during a zoology lecture when my professor finally started to mention sharks, but it was over in less than 15 minutes. After class I waited for the professor and put him on the spot. He was not really sure how to react when I blurted out that these few minutes on sharks were the main reason why I went to college and signed up at the technical institute. He was dumbfounded, but managed to suggest that I should probably leave the ETH and sign up with the University of Zurich, where I could likely study “fishes.”

I signed up with the University of Zurich and believed that I finally found my way. But I was unprepared for the fact that the program was literally about “fishes”–the boney kind –and not the cartilaginous variety I wanted to study. So I asked for a meeting with the head of the department and once more, in a rather frustrated state, asked if there is any chance to do anything – anything – that would entail sharks. Although he said that he could not really help me with anything related to sharks (he was an ornithologist), he promised that I could focus on the apex predators for my master’s studies. For the first time I started to believe that I would actually get the chance to work with these incredible creatures. Of course what I had in mind was not what reality chose for me.

I was under the impression that I would start swimming with sharks, describe their behavior, develop experiments about their interactions with humans, and spend my time on islands surrounded by sharks. Granted, I was still a dreamer back then. Instead I ended up in a lab doing anatomical studies on their muscle system. But I told myself that once I have a master’s degree I would then be able to sign up at one of the universities in the US, where classes were taught by the authors of the very books I had translated as a child. But the movie JAWS was still fresh in most people’s minds, and because my ideas included studying the exact species Spielberg had turned society against, I did not receive the necessary funding. So I ended up remaining at the Zoological Museum in Zurich studying bony fishes, and I started to accept that my fascination with sharks would likely never be more than a hobby.

I kept reading everything about sharks, but no longer in the context of a possible career choice, until I learned about a program at the University of Miami (UM) and my dream swam back into the realm of possibility. A few months later, after getting the money I needed, I started my first day at UM and was convinced that this time my aspirations would finally come to pass.

However, as was becoming a theme in my quest – two steps forward, and one step back – my hopes were again dashed. The course of study did not involve hanging out with sharks, no experiments with sharks and humans, no body language evaluation, but rather catching sharks, putting tags on them and tracking where they went. But I had learned not to take no for an answer, and this time I did not settle for middle ground.

So each weekend, after my regular research, I started trying to understand how sharks interacted with humans. Back then the general opinion was that sharks are dangerous, and that because of this, no one could dive or interact with them. Well, I did it anyway and started to commune with tiger sharks, white sharks and bull sharks. My view that this was an enhancement of my knowledge base, and a continuation of my studies, was not shared by many. I got quite a bit of resistance, mainly from my peers. In fact some comments were rather nasty. I still clearly recall how I was ridiculed when I explained that the term “shark attack” is a misnomer, and should be called an “incident,” or an “accident.” But in truth I could care less. Battling ignorance was par for the course back then.

The funny thing is, today nobody wants to remember how the study of sharks started. And it is not just language that has changed since then. Attitudes have also come a long way. Sharks are the most harmless animals among the top and super predators on our planet (based on density and number of incidents), and the best proof is to be among them. So to spread the word, I started teaching everyone who wanted to learn about sharks, including those who might end up face-to-face with these magnificent animals. I launched an organization called “SharkSchool,” where I not only taught divers, surfers, swimmers, lifeguards, and even special forces, to handle close encounters, but I also built a research station in the Bahamas solely dedicated to the study of shark-human interaction. This work included incident analysis and reconstruction, as well. I had finally found my niche! But in April 2002 all of that would change when I was nearly killed by a shark during a demonstration on live television.

One of my spotters–a person designated to watch my back–did not do his job, allowing a shark to get through from behind me and bite me twice in my left leg, severing an artery. I had often worked with spotters since they could discern when a situation would get tricky, and could warn me so I could react appropriately to avoid an accident. The wound was so severe that it was a race against time to make it to a hospital before I bled out. After eight hours of surgery, and many more after that, the doctors saved my life. I had a hard time digesting the incident, not just because of my handicap, but also because some of my colleagues showed their true colors.

Back then I was not aware that my spotter failed to do his job, and that the incident could have been prevented. Because of this the situation was not portrayed as a failure of duty, but rather as a failure of my research. It was positioned as though the way I see sharks was flawed, incorrect, and that I was a fraud. The worst part was probably how some of my colleagues who had questioned my work before the accident left no opportunity to discredit me untaken. But the more bad press I got, the more they tried to disqualify what I knew was right, the more convinced I was that I had to get back in the water as quickly as possible to show everybody that they were wrong.

It was a long process since nobody seemed to want to know how it happened. They focused only on the fact that it had happened, drawing the false conclusion that because I had been bitten, sharks should be considered dangerous.  So for years my top priority was to explain why the details of why it happened were important. The unbelievable part of all this was that my accident eventually opened up the doors to foundations, sponsors and philanthropists again. And the reason was always the same: how could a person who cheated death go back in the water to redo what had nearly cost him his life, and preach the same message as before?

The fact is that sharks were, and are, not how they were portrayed in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. They are in truth the very way I have always presented them – shy, cautious and smart. Most accidents are superficial and of an exploratory nature. But even given this, the research still remained a struggle. Not just because I preferred to work with wild sharks, but because data collection got more and more complicated. Eventually my research got so difficult that I needed of find a researcher who could help me make sense of all the data I collected. So I did a search on the internet and one name popped up: Professor Raid Amin from the University of West Florida.

I still remember the first meeting I had with him. I was nervous, not just because I had no clue of the kind of statistics I really needed–and doubted I would understand it–but also because I was used to meeting resistance when I presented my work. But Raid was nothing what I imagined. Like me, he thought differently, and was not only intrigued by my work, promising to support me on any future research I might conduct, but also showed me what could be done with my work when applying proper statistics and modeling.

Raid and I have since become friends and have worked on many projects together. We are establishing new methodologies, not just to make shark behavior better understood, but to examine shark incidents properly. To this date I swim and interact with sharks on a nearly daily basis, and they still fascinate me the same way they did when I first saw them on TV all those years ago.

And as attitudes change, so has my ability to spread the message that sharks are not to be feared, but to be respected. And most of all, they need to be understood. And perhaps the most important thing I have learned through all of these lessons is that when things don’t go exactly as you might have planned, don’t be scared to get back in the water – dive even deeper.

Philipp Wolf — My Single Greatest Motivation

Mechanical and automotive engineer Philipp Wolf tells the story of how one fateful June evening changed his life — and his studies — forever.

Philipp_Wolf_PictureI grew up in a quiet neighborhood, close to a beautiful green forest, in a city called Frechen – a peaceful suburb of Cologne, Germany, made up of 50,000 residents. I loved this place – not least because of the tennis club a few hundred meters up the street. I went there to practice almost every day, mostly with my older brother. My dad would also often take time off to take us to tournaments, and I had serious ambitions to become the next Pete Sampras. In my childhood optimism I thought my prospects were quite good.

Back in 1999, when I was 11, I can remember sitting at home in the living room with my mom and my uncle on a warm and clear June evening. We were all excited to go to my parent’s friend’s 40th birthday party, where my brother and I could play with fellow kids in their huge backyard. We were waiting for my dad to arrive home from work, and as usual he was running late. It happened fairly regularly. He ran his own company – a small business specializing in providing high-end dental prosthesis – and just recently relocated his Frechen office closer to Cologne to accommodate his main client base.

I was sitting on a couch next to my uncle who was in his twenties and would always play football or tennis with my brother and me in the garden. That day I was more excited to go to the birthday party, though. At quarter to seven PM I got impatient and picked up the phone to call my dad’s office. The answering machine picked up which meant that he was on his way. He drove a light blue metallic Golf III convertible. It wasn’t the newest car but I loved it. On weekends we would clean it together and my dad would explain me how parts of the vehicle work. He had a thing for cars. In the summer he would take me to tennis tournaments with the roof open and Michael Jackson tunes blasting out of the car. When he arrived home I would recognize him by the sound of the car’s engine, run to open the door and jump in his arms. He always worked long hours so I was happy to see him during the week.

At eight PM finally the doorbell rang. Strangely enough I didn’t hear my dad’s car, but was nonetheless excited to finally leave for the birthday party. Only, it wasn’t my dad waiting outside the door. It was two young policemen standing in the doorway. “Ms. Wolf?,” one of them asked my mom, “Can we come in?”

It was a peculiar scene. My uncle and me were sitting together on a couch by the wall when my mom came back into the living room and stopped right beside us, the policemen standing across from us right in the middle of the room. Their skin was pale, the looks on their faces serious, even anxious. Their uniforms accentuated their strong physique. Guns, bats and handcuffs hung around their waists. They looked utterly out of place, like a disruptive element in a peaceful sphere. The scene was one of ominous tranquility. Yet the man in the front who was about to break the silence had a soothing aura about him. He spoke with a steady, reassuring, almost paternal voice. But his eyes didn’t reflect that. His eyes looked sad and it seemed as if he had an inner reluctance to deliver whatever he was about to say.

“Your husband was involved in a fatal car accident,” he said. Silence. For what felt like hours no one spoke a word. An oppressive atmosphere filled the room. I didn’t fully get what he said. “What happened?,” I whispered to my mom. My mind was racing: car accident? How is he? Where is he? Can we go and see him? I looked at my mom for clarification, but she was just gazing back at the policeman with incredulous incomprehension. Then I turned to my uncle who was sitting there stonily. I noticed the policeman looking at me. I looked back. When our eyes met I could feel his unease, an inner struggle to stay reassuring, knowing the scope of what he just announced, knowing that with one sentence he just destroyed a family’s world, knowing that my mom lost her husband, knowing that I would grow up without my daddy. He saw all the things that I couldn’t and wouldn’t want to understand at that time. What I did understand though, was the feeling that his look left me with. I’ll never forget that moment, and it was then when I realized that something terrible had happened.

I heard my brother coming down the wooden staircase. Unlike me he understood immediately. He smashed his keychain on the ground with all his strength and started shouting. I don’t remember much of what happened next. Emptiness started to lay over me like a veil, leaving no space for emotions. The next thing I remember is lying in my bed, staring at the wall for hours, days, feeling nothing but grief and sorrow. People came in to pass on their deepest condolences, and while I knew to appreciate their support, I didn’t really care. Nothing mattered. Words wouldn’t bring back the person that I loved so much. I started questioning my own faith, my sense of everything. I tried to understand. I wondered if everything would have been different if I had called just a minute, or even a second earlier. I didn’t accept the truth and I was sure I would see him again someday. It took me a while to let go of that thought. Before the funeral I kept asking my mom if we can see him one last time to say goodbye. She would answer that I wouldn’t want to. It was one of the worst things for me, not being able to say goodbye. I’ll never forget when many years later she told me how she went to see the post-mortem examination report and left sick to her stomach after reading the doctor’s note: “heavily deformed body.” I was glad then that I didn’t see him again.

But in his passing, my dad passed on his passion for cars and technology. That is a piece of his legacy to me. It is also what has driven me on a mission to improve car safety. Motivated by my experience I committed myself to study mechanical engineering, eager to learn as much as possible about cars to continuously raise the bar of my ability, and propel me towards new ways of preventing others from experiencing what I and my family had endured. I got accepted to Germany’s top engineering school and made incredible strides. Much of this passion culminated in a design challenge, focused on creating parts for a small-scale formula-style racing car. The goal of the competition was to design, build, test and race said car against other teams around the world.

Our challenge was to reduce the weight and costs of the formula-style racing car by five to 10 percent. Being part of the suspension team, I chose to re-design the wheel hub and adjoining parts of the car. Aware of our affiliation to one of the leading engineering schools in Germany, we were determined to push the limits and go the extra mile. We didn’t want to just achieve the ambitious goals we set ourselves as a team, but also to come up with something special that no other team had ever implemented.

For this reason we chose to deploy a drive shaft – the part of the vehicle that connects different critical parts of the car, allowing the vehicle to operate as one machine – made from carbon fiber reinforced plastics. It has a much higher specific strength (strength-to-weight ratio) than steel, providing significant weight advantages, and most importantly to us, it was the coolest thing out there. High-end, high-tech racing teams use carbon fiber materials to explore their car’s full potential, and in our case it added the final touch to the carbon fiber look of our car.

However, using this material for the design of the wheel hub – which is how the wheels connect to the body of the car – brought about a whole new set of challenges. A stress-bearing, composite-to-steel connection had to compensate for the differing material characteristics, and the much larger diameter of the new drive shaft required a new connecting device. Not least of all, the new design had to ensure that the connection between drive shaft and wheel hub would allow for stress to be transferred without causing fractures or failure to any one part.

Fond of the idea to create something exceptional, I came up with a novel solution. I reversed the connecting area from the outside to the inside of the wheel hub, and made use of a self-reinforcing polygonal-shaped connector, rendering screws superfluous, and enabling a smooth transfer of forces. The design was not only implemented and successful, but it over exceeded the target cost and weight savings manifold.

Ultimately we did not win.  But it didn’t matter because the sublime challenges we overcame, not only as individuals, but even more so as a team, made us rise above ourselves professionally and personally to achieve what nobody thought was possible. For me this made us winners regardless of the competition. In addition to the challenges mentioned, we were among the very few first student teams to build not only a conventional racing car, but also a second electric racing vehicle for the first-ever formula student electric competition. Being affected by the financial crisis through our sponsors, the story behind our success was motivated exclusively by passion, team spirit and an aspiration for the extraordinary.

My studies equipped me with the skills, theories, creativity and courage needed to overcome the status-quo and make an impact for the better. But it is hard for me to imagine even pursuing these ambitions without that tragic, fateful night many Junes ago. That experience, and my family’s loss, remains my single greatest motivator.