November 10-15

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Home // Keynote speaker uses humor to highlight importance of taking risks in science

Keynote speaker uses humor to highlight importance of taking risks in science


3 minutes

David L. Hu, PhD
David L. Hu, PhD

Those in attendance at Saturday’s Opening Lecture and Awards had some good laughs as invited lecturer David L. Hu, PhD, reminisced about several of his “silly” research projects, including a study of the hydrodynamics of mammal urination.

However, while he made jokes about “pee-pee pipes,” Dr. Hu, Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Biology and Adjunct Professor of Physics at Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, showed there really are no bad questions. Even seemingly silly or unimportant research can be useful. 

During his talk, “How to Walk on Water and Climb Up Walls,” Dr. Hu not only shared interesting scientific data, he entertained and inspired attendees to rekindle their love of science and medicine. 

Dr. Hu, who specializes in the study of how animals interact with water, shared how changing his infant son’s diaper and subsequently counting the duration of his urination led him to question why animals of different sizes would pee for approximately the same length of time. His subsequent paper, “Duration of Urination Does Not Change with Body Size,” would go on to draw ridicule as an example of “wasteful” spending by former Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona on the cable program “Fox and Friends.”

“As it turns out, of the 20 studies criticized, I was responsible for 15%,” Dr. Hu said. “So that was a Georgia Tech record.” 

In addition to his urination study, Dr. Hu also made the wasteful list for “Which has more hair? A squirrel or a honeybee?” and “How many shakes does it take for a wet dog to dry off?” Incidentally, he said, a squirrel and a honeybee have about the same number of hairs. 

Making this illustrious list three times put Dr. Hu in the position of needing to respond — at least according to his university. He did it with an editorial in Scientific American, where he discussed how politicians have long found it easy and beneficial to attack science. 

“This has been going on years,” Dr. Hu said. “Media will often pick up on reports like Flake’s. The big problem with this is that these types of ‘wasteful research reports’ have a chilling effect on research. They cause everyone to slow down and be more careful. Everyone gets worried they’re going to get kicked out for doing something that looks like it’s wasteful. 

“That’s the big issue because failure in research is essential. It’s important that we choose the most dangerous and interesting projects. And if we don’t, it distorts the way we choose projects, and ultimately it hinders society’s progress.” 

Following his interactions with Sen. Flake, Dr. Hu said he vowed to never again publish a paper on urination. However, four months later he did publish a paper titled “Hydrodynamics of Defecation” in the journal “Soft Matter.”

In further defense of “wasteful” research, Dr. Hu shared how Japanese researchers expanded on his urination study to discover that length of urination can be used to assess bladder health. His findings have also contributed to work in artificial bladder and prosthetic urethra research applications.

“These prosthetics are made out of collagen and human cells,” he said. “These are tested for robustness based on our 21-second rule. Without our rule, some of these devices wouldn’t have a proper protocol.”

Dr. Hu also shared highlights from his research on fire ants and how the information gained is helping engineers develop innovative bridge designs.

Following his lecture, Dr. Hu answered questions and shared signed copies of his book How to Walk on Water and Climb Up Walls: Animal Movement and the Robots of the Future, which offers greater detail about his research.