On Campus

Harvard engineering prof leaves lab for Afghan deployment

In full gear, professor reviewed student applications in the middle of a war zone

Last year, Kit Parker was a Harvard professor. Today, he is a U.S. army major in Afghanistan.

Parker has spent his whole career juggling two unlikely professions: Teaching and fighting. He returned in December to Afghanistan, where he has been involved in numerous firefights and attacks on his convoys with roadside bombs.

His unusual career path has put the 43-year-old in what he calls “the two extremes of human condition.”

“You have Afghanistan, where you have … 90 per cent illiteracy, people living in mud huts, roughly the 12th century,” says Parker, a towering man with a shaved head, darting blue eyes, a southern drawl and an apparently strong command of just about any subject he talks about. “And then you got people at Harvard, where supposedly we are all literate and have all kinds of education available to us. How more different can these two environments be?”

And yet, he says, one thing is the same – the relentless pace of the work. Nothing prepared him better for Harvard than his first deployment.

“I was used to every day, 24/7-work to survive,” says Parker, who is with the 3rd Brigade of the New York-based 10th Mountain Division. “And you step into the tenure track at Harvard and it is the same thing.”

Parker first heard about Afghanistan as an undergraduate at Boston University in the 1980s. The university was running a training program for Afghan reporters who then wrote articles about the war between the mujahedeen and the Soviet Union’s troops for the university newspaper.

“Little did I know when I was reading these news articles in the student paper that almost 20 years later I would be in this hell hole,” says Parker of Birmingham, Ala. “Joke’s on me.”

He got his bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering in Boston before moving to Tennessee’s Vanderbilt University, where he earned a master’s in chemical engineering and a PhD in applied physics. He was also an army reservist.

Just before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Parker was considering getting out of the army.

“It was getting more and more difficult to maintain two careers at a high speed,” he says.

But when the attacks happened, “I was in for the whole shebang.”

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. But he could not say no.

“You cannot deny service to one’s country ever, no matter how difficult,” Naryanamurti says. “It was a very unusual case.”

Ever since, Parker’s two career paths have been intertwined more than he thought was possible.

Young and single at the time, Parker deployed with the U.S. army’s 82nd Airborne division into southern Afghanistan – the Taliban’s heartland – in 2002.

As a captain, he patrolled the vast desert expanse of Kandahar and Zabul provinces, fought and had tea with villagers. But Harvard was never far from him.

They sent care packages, but one such package took him by surprise.

It was February, and Parker had just returned from a patrol. He was filthy and tired.

“And there was this huge box from Harvard. I open this box up, thinking it is going to be a care package, and there was a note on there,” he says.
The note said: “Please review and email your decisions immediately.” The package was full of applications from potential students.

“So I am sitting there … sweat dripping of me, I am filthy and I’ve got all my battle rattle on, and I am reviewing these kids’ applications and I am thinking about all the care they put to prepare these applications,” Parker says. “I make my decisions, I email them back and I burn them in a burn bucket with all the other classified information.”

Once he got back after his first deployment to be the Thomas D. Cabot associate professor of applied sciences, Parker did not want to be a “stereotypical vet.”

“I wanted to be known for the good teaching and good research,” he says.

But he found it impossible to escape some of his experiences. After nearly being hit by a roadside bomb, he got interested in bombs and the traumatic brain injuries they cause. 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 metres from his lab and worked from 5 a.m. until midnight. He also got married and now has a 10-month-old daughter.
After this 2009 duty tour, Parker plans to leave the army for his family and career. But right now, his unit is deployed at the gates of Kabul. Ever the professor, his inquisitive mind is seeking ways to turn the counterinsurgency fight into a science.

“Can we develop some sort of algorithm that any unit can come in and apply to successfully suppress an insurgency in their area of operation, and then help develop the local area?” Parker asks.

He also warns that Afghanistan is not ready for “a full-blown American makeover.”

“The whole idea that we are going to surge a tremendous amount of money and assets in here and they are suddenly going to be able to jet-propel themselves from the 12th century to the American industrial revolution of the 1900s is absurd,” he says. “If you are going into most of these villages, the most high-tech thing is the AK-47. The next most high-tech thing you see is the wheel.”

But that is not a cause for despair, he says. It will take someone’s vision, innovation and strong will to change the situation, Parker says. As he sits inside a tent that serves a dining facility, he taps at his weapon.

“I have limited effectiveness with this,” he says. “Gun fights are not going to win this.”

– The Canadian Press

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