Far from the city streets in Iraq and Afghanistan that are today's battlefields, a Harvard scientist is working in a sterile lab in Cambridge, simulating the impact of explosions, and trying to better understand what a blast does to a soldier's brain.
As a soldier, Army Major Kit Parker served two combat tours in Afghanistan. As a cutting-edge researcher, his work in the field of traumatic brain injury is personal.
“A friend of mine was wounded with a traumatic brain injury, and he was improperly cared for by the military," Parker said. "I got upset about this, and my frustration with my friend’s care, and some ideas that I had about brain injury, and having reviewed the literature of brain injury, I decided to get into that field.”
Parker is a bioengineer. He along with the other scientists at the Disease Biophysics Group at Harvard University wear white lab coats and rubber gloves. With high efficiency filters keeping the air inside clean, Parker and his team grow human and animal cells including brain cells to help them understand what happens to the brain when it’s exposed to an improvised explosive device, or IED.
These researchers have created a device that can cause trauma to brain cells by simulating the effects of a bomb blast. Parker’s goal is to find better treatments for those suffering with brain injuries, but he also has other research interests.
“Over time, I went back and revisited the list of things that had pissed me off while I was in the battlefield, and I just decided to do a little bit of science for everything that pissed me off," Parker said. "So, we’ve evolved this into work on camouflage, because the camouflage patterns were pretty poor in the Afghanistan desert.”
As Parker has worked through his extensive fix-it list, he’s recruited other veterans to help him. The student-veterans he hires share his desire to solve perplexing technical problems that plague the military.
A job is not enough. A job that any knucklehead could do is a total waste of what we have invested in these young people.
“In many ways my laboratory gives some of these veterans an opportunity to bring the innovative ideas that they had on the battlefield back to the laboratory and do something, so they have some freedom," he said. "They tell me, 'Hey, I’ve got something that really pissed me off while I was in Iraq, or pissed me off while I was in Afghanistan or the Horn of Africa or the Philippines.' And I’ll say, 'Hey, get in the lab and do it!'"
One veteran whom Parker told to get in the lab is Josh Goss. He's served two tours in Iraq and now runs Parker's Harvard lab. As Goss gives me a tour, he explains work they're doing on a camouflage problem he encountered during those Iraq deployments.
“As a marine they gave me two sets of uniforms, one green and one tan, to try to match our general environment, so that we would be fighting in the desert or the woodland areas, and it turns out in the desert we would do patrols on the Euphrates River, or we’d be on an island near the Euphrates, and it’s lush and green and we’re wearing bright tan,” Goss said.
But what if that bright, tan uniform could transform to match that lush, green island? To figure out how uniforms could change color, Goss and the team have been studying marine animals like the cuttlefish and the squid, which are masters of camouflage.
“We were looking at the cuttlefish and it has the ability to control the coloration of its skin," Goss said. "The skin is made of multiple layers, it has this reflective background and then there’s these little sacs of pigment that are full of different pigment granules. And then they have muscles that stretch the sacs out. So if it wants to be more brown, it stretches out all the brown pigment sacs.”
Inspired by the cuttlefish, one approach Goss and the team is exploring, would involve embedding pigment sacs into nanofibers they create in the lab. The tiny fibers could then be worked into a fabric that the wearer could manipulate to change color.
In Parker’s lab, inspiration often comes from unusual places.
As our tour moves on to another room in the lab, Goss shows me a children’s cotton candy maker that he’s tucked away on a top shelf.
"This is probably the best $50 that I’ve ever spent at Target," Goss said.
Goss explains that the toy was the inspiration behind a machine the team has created in the lab to make their nanofibers.
"It’s also not the first time that I’ve purchased scientific equipment from a local store,” he said.
In addition to research, this lab brings veterans together to share their common experiences most of us will never know.
“This lab sort of has a parallel feeling to the military and how the military is run,” said Ian Perkins, who was deployed to Iraq three times.
"For instance, my first summer here, we had a cleaning inspection. And that’s something that is more done in the military. I don’t know if your boss would ever come into the office and start wiping his fingers down on every flat surface. But that’s something we do here.”
Perkins and Goss came to Parker’s lab through a summer internship program at Harvard. For the past year, Goss has mentored Perkins and supported him as he’s transitioned from Bunker Hill Community College to Northeastern University. It's that connection between veterans that Parker wants to nurture.
"A job is not enough," Parker said. "A job that any knucklehead could do is a total waste of what we’ve invested in these young people."
So Parker wants the U.S. to develop a national plan to help returning veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's in these veterans that he sees the next generation of leaders.