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Podcast No. 2: Kevin Kit Parker, Mad Scientist of Harvard

By Will Ahmed

Podcast No. 2: Kevin Kit Parker, Mad Scientist of Harvard

My guest today on the WHOOP Podcast is Kevin Kit Parker.

Listen on:

Kit is the Tarr Family Professor of Bioengineering and Applied Physics at Harvard, director of the SEAS Disease Biophysics Group, and a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve. I first met Kit in 2013 because he taught Aurelian Nicolae, co-founder at WHOOP, while Aurelian was at Harvard. Kit and I bonded over the concept of improving sleep and recovery within the Department of Defense (how can we make soldiers sleep better and recover faster?), and he soon after became an advisor to WHOOP. Given Kit served multiple combat tours in Afghanistan, as well two missions as part of the Gray team investigating traumatic brain injuries, our mission to improve human performance was close to his heart. Kit is literally the mad scientist at Harvard--his lab creates some of the wildest and most innovative projects you can imagine. You have to listen to understand what I mean. Our conversation includes a variety of amazing topics including how to optimize your vacation, the science of counterinsurgency, how your body handles being in a firefight, designing fashion that humans are neurologically wired to enjoy, building the country’s best BBQ smoker, and dinner with Kanye West and Larry Paige. I expected my conversation with Kit to be highly entertaining and he certainly delivered! I hope you enjoy.

Show Notes:

4:02 - Harvard Design Class. Kit explains why the class he teaches includes such a wide array of unconventional topics. 5:12 - Counterinsurgency Lab. Kit and his students studied gangs who moved into neighborhoods the same way Al Qaeda did in Afghanistan. “No one has ever done the science behind counterinsurgency … this is a great problem for a class, it’s at the interface of engineering and the social sciences.” 9:15 - The Best BBQ. “We don’t understand the fundamental laws of smoking meat?” Check out 11:15 - Irresistible Fashion. Inspired by the cuttlefish, optical fibers built into a dress that could alter it’s pattern based on your mood, or by tapping your phone. “A friend of mine, Tory Burch, I always tell her I can make a dress she’s neurologically wired to like.” 15:01 - Designing Safer Schools. “I’ve watched the last school shooting that I’m going to watch without doing something … it’s a design problem.” 19:40 - Ice Cream. Inspired by his 10-year-old daughter, Kit went to ice cream school in Canada. “Can I beat halo?” 22:55 - Replace the Modern Resume. “They only look at their employee based on what they are trained to do in terms of their degrees, not what their passions are outside the workplace and how they can bring value to their employer.” 29:14 - Art Impacts Science. Kit’s lab has studio space for artists, “they go through a much faster creative cycle than scientists … visualization through art helps scientists understand what we are trying to do.” 32:28 - “The Art of Learning,” by Josh Waitzkin, a chess prodigy who later became a martial arts world champion. How? 34:20 - Dinner with Kanye and Larry Page. “Specialization is the enemy of innovation … if you know good design you can do anything.” 38:17 - We Want to be Smarter About Ourselves. “At WHOOP, you’re selling people the key to own themselves.” 41:40 - Kit’s Two Careers collided on September 11, 2001. What he saw in Afghanistan “takes a toll on the soul.” 45:48 - Being in a Firefight. “It absolutely maxes you on every scale,” he was never scared, always just trying to figure out how to get on top of the situation. “How can I dominate this?” 47:35 - 20/10 Vision. Kit recalls his first firefight and tells the story of “performance enhancement” that helped him succeed despite a very agitated dog. 53:29 - Ever Been Shot? Another humorous combat story and why he was actually laughing in the moment. “You don’t surrender your humanity.” 56:30 - Power of Visualization. “The subject of every jog’s daydream was me performing in a firefight.” References Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” theory. 1:00:06 - Improving Sleep. Kit explains what got him involved with WHOOP, helping people in the military sleep better. 1:04:10 - Sleep and Traumatic Brain Injuries. How he became part of the Gray team, the discovery of a correlation between lack of sleep and post-combat stress. 1:08:45 - LACE became LACES. The checklist for combat leaders--liquid, ammo, casualties, equipment and sleep. 1:12:14 - Vacation Science. “What are your physiological rest goals? … No one ever looks at the scientific design of vacation.” Stay in your time zone, go where it’s warm, and unplug for a minimum of 72 hours. 1:16:10 - Athletes Sleep Better on Road? Have seen this in WHOOP data, families can be stressful. The Red Sox have a sleep station in Fenway Park. 1:18:18 - Effects of Travel. Beyond sleep issues and changing time zones, the pressurization inside airplanes affects people after flying. 1:21:06 - WHOOP Benefiting Soldiers. What can we do to make tactical athletes as effective as possible? “I need to know if they’re comfortable ... that’s the opportunity for the technology.” 1:26:31 - Buying into Data. “For the professional athlete, their body is their asset, but it goes beyond their body, their lifestyle is their asset.” Can physiological data be used to project athletes’ career trajectories? 1:30:40 - Privacy and Data Security. Can the U.S. keep up with China and Russia? By 2022 China will have a reputation score for all citizens. “Ultimately that will be to the demise of their civilization because they will homogenize the population to the point that there is no creative friction.” 1:35:06 - Artificial Intelligence. Will AI ever out-design humans? “We sanitize the workplace of the emotion that drives creativity.” 1:37:27 - Travel Tips/Life Hacks. “Travel sucks.” Kit doesn’t eat airplane food. 1:40:06 - Losing Sleep Over the Red Sox during their World Series run (this episode was recorded on October 29th, the day after they won the World Series). We saw it in the WHOOP data of Boston residents. 1:42:50 - Most Creative Person he’s ever met? Kanye West. “His creativity is transdisciplinary … he wasn’t afraid if he crashed and burned … being at the cutting edge in any field is about embracing a chronic discomfort, if you’re afraid of being wrong you’re never going to be an innovator.” 1:46:10 - Situational Awareness. A trait of winners, leaders, and innovators. You see it in athletes, coaches, artists, etc. “Put yourself in a situation that you’re about to completely collapse and find a way to pull out a victory.”