• Kakani is a 2011 National Geographic Emerging Explorer. She studies the impact of the movement of marine animals on the world’s oceans and ocean currents.

    Kakani explains the focus of a bioengineer: “We learn from what nature is doing and think of how we can apply that to technology in the future.”


    The Boeing Company, one of the largest aerospace and defense contractors in the world, was one of the largest employers in Everett, Washington, where Kakani grew up. Software giant Microsoft also has a nearby campus. She cannot remember not being surrounded by engineers and different types of engineering.

    Kakani is interested in fluid dynamics, or the way fluids move. Fluids can be air, water, and materials called plasmas, such as lightning. Kakani originally studied fluid dynamics in aerospace engineering. She earned her undergraduate degree in aeronautics from the University of Washington and a master’s degree in the same subject at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, California.

    At Caltech, Kakani became more interested in fluid dynamics as they applied to bioengineering. Bioengineering is dominated by biomedical research. In fact, in college, Kakani worked to design an apparatus to improve artificial heart valves.

    One day, one of Kakani’s professors asked her to take part in a scuba expedition to study fluid dynamics and jellyfish. She had no experience in biology or diving, but she was enthusiastic, and the opportunity opened a new career path.

    She earned her PhD in bioengineering from Caltech, and now works at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.


    Field work!”

    Kakani enjoys both parts of field work—collecting data in the ocean and studying that data in the lab. Although she works with biologists and studies marine animals regularly, Kakani remains most enthusiastic about engineering. For instance, looking at footage of a swimming jelly, Kakani observes the patterns created in the water as the jelly propels itself forward—“Look at those sexy vortex rings!”


    “Lack of sleep. Your targets are nocturnal animals that are usually the most active around midnight. You have to keep an open mind, because you constantly have to observe and measure their behavior.”


    “What a place has to offer—people, scientists, their work, as well as the physical sites.”

    Kakani says she always tries to work with the scientists and local residents of a region she’s studying. “It teaches you new ways to approach a problem, which is what an engineer does.”


    Kakani helped invent a new geographic tool that helps engineers and biologists study the movement of fluids in the ocean. It’s a small device that a single scuba diver can carry. Before this tool was available, researchers studying the flow of hydrothermal vents or ocean currents had to re-create conditions in the lab or descend in a submersible. The lasers and high-speed cameras were big and bulky.

    Researchers can now take their tools with them and study the environment in its natural state. Kakani has used the tool to study the environment in oceans and lakes in Friday Harbor, Washington; Long Beach, California; Palau; Croatia; Panama; and the open waters of the Pacific.

    The organism that Kakani has followed to all these places is the jellyfish. “They’re everywhere!” she says.

    Kakani and the biologists she works with often find schools of jellies not with sophisticated GIS technology, but by simple word-of-mouth. Fishermen and swimmers try to avoid jellies, and know where not to fish or swim.

    Even in the water, jellies can be hard to detect. When asked about the possibility of being stung, Kakani laughs, “Oftentimes, that’s how you find them!” (She notes that the wetsuits her team wears usually prevent a serious sting, and most tentacles rub off with seawater or vinegar.)

    Jellies make excellent subjects for fluid mechanics, Kakani says. They’re symmetrical, with easily identifiable organs. As they move, they create clear vortex rings—doughnut-shaped rings of water that quickly dissipate into the larger ocean. The vortex rings and the fluid the jellies transport with them as they move create a “rotational flow that mixes fluid in the ocean,” Kakani explains.

    Marine biologists, as well as oceanographers and engineers, are interested in the way jellies and other marine organisms move. Some scientists hypothesize that the movement of these organisms could have the same effect on the ocean as winds and tides.

    Even though she is not a marine biologist, Kakani says she wishes she knew more about these “crazy-looking, alien things.”


    Kakani stresses the importance of math, and is frustrated by the way math and science are sometimes taught. “Sometimes we present it like it’s so hard. It is not daunting. We’re handicapping kids before they’ve even started.”


    Engineering has taken Kakani from aeronautics—the study of spacecraft—to medical technology to bioengineering at the bottom of the ocean. Not surprisingly, she encourages young scientists to keep an open mind. “Get involved in a local aquarium, zoo, or university-outreach program. See what else is going on in science outside your comfort zone.”

    Kakani also encourages families to travel, both inside and outside their local area. As a girl, “I was lucky enough to travel to see family in Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand. . . . I know most kids don’t have those opportunities, but you have the opportunity to go to a park or a science center nearby.”

    Bioengineer: Kakani Katija
    Kakani Katija is a bioengineer.
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    aerospace Noun

    business concerned with the manufacturing and operation of vehicles that fly in and above Earth's atmosphere.

    apparatus Noun

    device or piece of machinery involving many different parts or instruments.

    aquarium Noun

    a container or tank where aquatic plants and animals are kept, or an institution that keeps such containers.

    avoid Verb

    to stay away from something.

    behavior Noun

    anything an organism does involving action or response to stimulation.

    bioengineer Noun

    person who applies engineering principles to the study of biology.

    biology Noun

    study of living things.

    biomedical Adjective

    having to do with the study of the application of natural and physical sciences to medicine and medical treatment.

    Boeing Noun

    multinational corporation focused on defense contracts and aerospace engineering, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois.

    campus Noun

    grounds and buildings of a school, hospital, or business park.

    current Noun

    steady, predictable flow of fluid within a larger body of that fluid.

    Encyclopedic Entry: current
    data Plural Noun

    (singular: datum) information collected during a scientific study.

    daunting Adjective

    intimidating, frightening, or discouraging.

    defense contractor Noun

    business that produces equipment and technology for the military.

    detect Verb

    to notice.

    device Noun

    tool or piece of machinery.

    dissipate Verb

    to scatter and disappear.

    Emerging Explorer Noun

    an adventurer, scientist, innovator, or storyteller recognized by National Geographic for their visionary work while still early in their careers.

    employer Noun

    person or organization that hires people for wages and salaries.

    encourage Verb

    to inspire or support a person or idea.

    engineer Noun

    person who plans the building of things, such as structures (construction engineer) or substances (chemical engineer).

    engineering Noun

    the art and science of building, maintaining, moving, and demolishing structures.

    enthusiastic Adjective


    expedition Noun

    journey with a specific purpose, such as exploration.

    field work Noun

    scientific studies done outside of a lab, classroom, or office.

    Encyclopedic Entry: field work
    fluid Noun

    material that is able to flow and change shape.

    fluid dynamics Noun

    study of fluids in motion.

    geographic information system (GIS) Noun

    any system for capturing, storing, checking, and displaying data related to positions on the Earth's surface.

    Encyclopedic Entry: GIS (geographic information system)
    handicap Verb

    to place at a disadvantage.

    heart valve Noun

    opening in the heart that allows the flow of blood in one direction.

    hydrothermal Adjective

    related to hot water, especially water heated by the Earth's internal temperature.

    hypothesize Verb

    to form a statement or suggestion that explains certain questions about certain facts.

    jellyfish Noun

    type of marine animal, not a fish, with a soft body and stinging tentacles.

    lake Noun

    body of water surrounded by land.

    Encyclopedic Entry: lake
    laser Noun

    (acronym for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) an instrument that emits a thin beam of light that does not fade over long distances.

    lightning Noun

    sudden electrical discharge from clouds.

    Encyclopedic Entry: lightning
    marine Adjective

    having to do with the ocean.

    Microsoft Noun

    multinational corporation focused on the manufacture, distribution, and sales of computer software, headquartered in Redmond, Washington.

    nocturnal Adjective

    active at night.

    ocean Noun

    large body of salt water that covers most of the Earth.

    Encyclopedic Entry: ocean
    oceanographer Noun

    person who studies the ocean.

    PhD Noun

    (doctor of philosophy) highest degree offered by most graduate schools.

    plasma Noun

    state of matter with no fixed shape and molecules separated into ions and electrons.

    prior Adjective

    before or ahead of.

    propel Verb

    to push forward.

    region Noun

    any area on Earth with one or more common characteristics. Regions are the basic units of geography.

    Encyclopedic Entry: region
    rotate Verb

    to turn around a center point or axis.

    scuba noun, adjective

    (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) portable device for breathing underwater.

    sophisticated Adjective

    knowledgeable or complex.

    spacecraft Noun

    vehicle designed for travel outside Earth's atmosphere.

    submersible Noun

    small submarine used for research and exploration.

    symmetrical Adjective

    having the same arrangment of parts on either side.

    technology Noun

    the science of using tools and complex machines to make human life easier or more profitable.

    tide Noun

    rise and fall of the ocean's waters, caused by the gravitational pull of the moon and sun.

    Encyclopedic Entry: tide
    travel Noun

    movement from one place to another.

    undergraduate noun, adjective

    having to do with the first (bachelor's) degree earned in college or university.

    vent Noun

    crack in the Earth's crust that spews hot gases and mineral-rich water.

    vinegar Noun

    sour liquid used for flavoring or as a preservative. Also called acetic acid.

    vortex ring Noun

    doughnut-shaped ring of fluid that moves within the same or a different fluid, such as smoke rings. Also called a toroidal vortex

    wind Noun

    movement of air (from a high pressure zone to a low pressure zone) caused by the uneven heating of the Earth by the sun.

    zoo Noun

    place where animals are kept for exhibition.

    Encyclopedic Entry: zoo