I met Dr. Brooke Flammang while I was a doctoral student at New Jersey Institute of Technology, where I walked into the aquarium room and noticed a large tank with remora (fish whose dorsal fin has a suction disc that can take a firm hold against the skin of larger marine animals). Normally, we housed different species of weakly electric fish, and the remora’s presence signaled that our new faculty had started to set up her lab.
Dr. Flammang was one of the first female research faculty in the biology department and from my first encounter I knew she was a powerhouse. Her energy, her interest in research, and zest for teaching was evident through her interactions with me. I defended my thesis in March of 2015, and soon after we had a great afternoon discussing post-doc life, science, and everything in between. She took me under her wing, having only met me less than a year before (and not even working in the same field – neuroscience). Little did she know that she had made a great impact on both my scientific career and my life. I knew that she would be one of the mentors I turn to during the path throughout my academic career.
Brooke Flammang is an assistant professor in the biology department at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, New Jersey. Her lab (https://web.njit.edu/~flammang/), the Fluid Locomotion Laboratory, focuses on functional morphology and biomechanics. Specifically, her current research is comparative biomechanics and the evolution of functional novelties. More specifically, she is interested in the morphological features of fishes that afford them performance advantages. Currently work in her lab focuses on remora adhesion, terrestrial walking in fishes, and mola and frogfish bioinspired robotics. Not being an expert in the field myself, I asked how she was drawn into this line of research and if any particular classes that helped peek her interest in research, “I pursued my Masters degree thinking I was going to be an ecologist studying deep sea catsharks, but then I took a fish biomechanics course from Lara Ferry (now at Arizona State) and it blew my mind. All of a sudden, here was the science that kept me awake at night, the science that made me wake up at 3 am with interesting questions. Using math and physics to approach biology made sense to me and helped me to understand and explain evolutionary patterns in a way that had not been possible before. Lara pointed me towards the Friday Harbor Labs fish course, taught by Adam Summers, which was a transformative experience. The FHL fish class was a biomechanics boot camp for me and gave me a strong foundation in experimental research. Its also where I made one of my first scientific discoveries that paved the way for my future career.”
Like many of us, Brooke had ups and downs during her career and periods of feeling like she did not belong. Rather than let those hinder, she used those moments as strengths and learning experiences. I was interested in understanding how she dealt with these problems and when she faced them. Walking into Harvard, was one of the first moments she was lost in her career. She was a first generation college student from a small town, who had chosen “their academic career thus far based on financial aid and part-time (really full-time) job opportunities.”
When you first get to know Brooke, and discuss her research you think that she was always a strong and confident scientist, however, it wasn’t always the case. “It took years for me to feel comfortable speaking freely about my thoughts and feeling like they might be taken seriously.” She dealt with imposter syndrome that consumed her during times at scientific conferences. We have all been there questioning our career path. “It still happens from time to time: we set ourselves up to be judged every time we submit a paper or a grant; it’s just the nature of the beast.” This leads us to the advice that she gives her grad students and postdocs, “You are the world’s expert on the thing you are researching. Own that and have confidence in yourself and seek to be the foremost authority on that thing. This is a commitment you are making so make sure that you love the thing you are doing. And make sure you check in on your mental health and create some time for yourself.”
She was fortunate to have many mentors who influenced her career and supported her, “George Lauder provided me with every opportunity for research success while promoting work-life balance, including being flexible with working from home and welcoming my infant into the lab so my productivity wasn’t impacted.” Others include Karel Liem and Farish Jenkins, who “were always available to discuss my ideas in earnest. Beth Brainerd, Lara Ferry, Alice Gibb, Miriam Ashley-Ross, and Patricia Hernandez continue to be strong examples of women in science whom have provided me with a lot of support over the years. Adam Summers is a tremendous advocate for junior colleagues in the field. Peter Girguis has always provided sage advice on how to navigate academia.”
Brooke is a leading authority in her field, shown by her numerous publications, grants, interviews, and awards. One award she received, the Carl Gans Award, conferred by the Society for the Integrative and Comparative Biology, was “one of the proudest moments of my career to date.” “When I’m working in research, I feel like I am making an exciting new discovery but I always wonder if it will be meaningful to others. To have my research acknowledged as ‘distinguished contributions to the field of comparative biomechanics’ gave me an overwhelming sense of validation that maybe I can get the hang of this, after all.” But awards aren’t the most rewarding part of her research. In addition to answering the “why” questions that many of us pose, she loves that the “discoveries in fish biomechanics holds the possibility of unlocking novel technological applications that can benefit humankind.”
She has been at NJIT for almost four years, and during that time has taught many classes, had students in her lab (graduate and undergraduate), supported postdocs, and published. I asked if there was a single moment during her time as a professor that has been her favorite, or if any stand out the most to her. Some of the moments she shared have come from her Comparative Biomechanics and Bioinspired Robotics courses in which her students develop their own research projects. During their experimental work, students have an ” ’a-ha!’ moment; to see their excitement as they suddenly get it right is the reason I like to teach these courses. How does one know when they are making an impact or if their students are taking away valuable lessons?” Brooke described one of those moments, and I imagine that it would be a moment of pride for any of us. “I had one group who was working on a flying cockroach robot (cockroaches fly like the chickens of the insect world) and in order to make sure they had the wing beat programming right they went out on their own and collected and analyzed a bunch of kinematic data over spring break.” Undergrads usually take their spring break to catch up on sleep, marathon that show on Netflix, or socialize, however, “they were so enthralled about what they were learning in the course that this seemed like the most exciting way for them to spend the vacation.”
Brooke continues to push the boundaries of her research and being a strong force in the comparative biomechanics field. A big part of pushing those boundaries is just knowing the “why?” What direction does she see the field moving in? “A lot of work in comparative biomechanics has been the foundation for developing novel technologies in medicine, defense, robotics, etc. I see no reason this trend should decrease as the applicability of research and its ability to solve a specific problem is highly motivational (and fundable). However, it is exceedingly important to note that the biological principles that these technologies are based on are almost unanimously the by-product of curiosity-driven basic research. It is imperative that the freedom to ask “why” just for the sake of knowing be supported.”