US Army Major Kevin "Kit" Parker knows firsthand the problems that servicemen and women struggle with on the battlefield. He served two combat tours in Afghanistan, and he has witnessed the devastating consequences of improvised explosive devices or IEDs.
"A friend of mine was wounded with a traumatic brain injury, and he was improperly cared for by the military," says Parker. "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 also the Tarr Family Professor of Bioengineering and Applied Physics at Harvard University, and in his bioengineering lab he has been trying to understand how explosions affect brain cells. The goal is to eventually develop better treatments for those suffering with brain injuries.
But Parker has a broad range of 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," he says. "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 has recruited other veterans to help him. The student vets that he hires share his desire to solve perplexing technical problems that plague the military, and they are not just American vets. Parker's lab, which is known as the Disease Biophysics Group, has also welcomed vets from coalition nations.
"The first one was a French graduate student who spent a three month internship with us, and he had spent his conscripted time in the French navy chasing pirates off the coast of Somalia," he says. "He had the best stories of all the veterans."
Inside Parker's lab at Harvard
Josh Goss is a veteran who runs Parker's lab. He says that one of the projects that he has been working on relates to something that he encountered during two deployments to Iraq.
"As a marine, they gave me two sets of uniforms, one green and one tan, to try to match our general environment," he says. "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."
What if that bright tan uniform could change color to match that lush green island? Goss and the team at Parker's lab are exploring ways to make adaptive textiles for a project funded by the US government's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA. For their work, the scientists have been studying how marine animals, including the cuttlefish and the squid, have mastered the art of camouflage.
In this lab inspiration often comes from unusual places. A children's cotton candy maker helped the team figure out the best way to make the nanofibers that they use in the lab for a variety of different things, including a project to create the next generation of wound dressings.
Ian Perkins, a former army infantryman who deployed three times to Iraq, says he feels right at home working in Parker's lab.
"This lab has a parallel feeling to the military and how the military is run," he says. "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 first came to work in Parker's lab through a summer internship program at Harvard. For the past year, Goss has mentored Perkins and supported him as he has transitioned from Bunker Hill Community College in Boston to Northeastern University.
Parker says there should be a national plan to nurture and make use of all of the veterans returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"A job is not enough," he says. "A job that any knucklehead could do is a total waste of what we've invested in these young people. Build a plan to continue to grow and develop them and you'll have the next generation of leaders."