By Chris Adams

It’s a marvel of engineering you see everyday if only you look up.

The ability of birds to take wing and fly has inspired aeronautical engineers for ages. At the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California, Kakani Katija actually got her start by looking to the skies – she wanted to be an astronaut. Her academic career began in aeronautics and astronautics.

But then she looked down, and today she researches how sea creatures could lead to advances in engineering that may help humans navigate or understand the world.

“I’m thinking really far out – what can we learn from animals in the ocean,” she said. “There are a lot of organisms and animals and lifeforms we know nothing about in our oceans.”

As head of the institute’s Bioinspiration Lab, Katija (bio, Twitter) conducts basic research, often directing remotely operated underwater vehicles to home in on sea life so she can examine its form, motion and dynamics.

In a session with National Press Foundation fellows, Katija discussed her work – including that on something called a giant larvacean (video here) that is translucent, about the size of a breakfast muffin and living in the waters off Monterey.

This see-through animal builds houses out of secreted mucous. When it then sheds those houses, they drop to the sea floor, which is littered with them. The larvaceans also ingest and then expel microplastics – tiny, tiny bits of manmade refuse.

By using dyes, Kakani and her team were able to see how the larvaceans processed the plastics and then expelled them. The finding could help scientists understand the role of microplastics in the oceans and how many of them end up on the seabed.