14 June 2009

Harvard professor serves in Afghanistan

Here's a nice story for the Army's birthday: A Harvard professor who is serving his second deployment in Afghanistan.

Major Kit Parker had been thinking about getting out of the US Army Reserve after many years, but then the attacks of September 11 happened.

As smoke and ashes rose from the ruins of the World Trade Center buildings in New York, Parker put aside his love for biomedical engineering and applied physics for a gun and uniform. About the same time, Harvard offered him a job as professor.

"That was an interesting day," Parker says with a hearty laugh. "I had to go and tell my dean, 'I know I am supposed to start the position but can you wait a year while I go and fight?'"

For Venkatesh Naryanamurti, then the dean of Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, that was a unique moment. No other professor in his faculty had ever asked for leave to go and fight a war.

Parker deployed with the 82nd Airborne into southern Afghanistan. After almost being blown up by an IED, he became interested in traumatic brain injury.

While visiting a friend who had lost his arm at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, he saw the neurological unit.

"You need to walk past there only once to realize that you got to do something if you can," Parker says. "I could not stand by."

So on top of dealing with cardiac tissue engineering and some nanotechnology, his team at the lab started looking into the molecular mechanisms of traumatic brain injury — what happens when blast waves penetrate the skull and go to the brain. An agency called the Defense Advance Research Project Agency funded the research. His war had found the way into his lab.

He rented an apartment 150 yards away from his lab and worked from 5 a.m. until midnight.

Now back in Afghanistan with the 3rd Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division, Parker - ever the professor - dreams of ways to turn the counterinsurgency fight into a science. Great story, definately worth a read.

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