Campus & Community

War stories of a soldier/scientist

long read

Assistant professor rides whirlwind from Afghanistan to Harvard Square

Kevin Kit Parker’s 9 mm pistol lay on the table next to the laptop as he
typed. He was stripped to the waist in the 130-degree heat, sweating
and writing while he waited for a flight home from Afghanistan.

After 10 months on patrol for the U.S. Army south of Kandahar,
Parker’s other life was demanding attention. He had a grant proposal
due Aug. 22.

“It was miserable,” Parker said of the heat, the stress of making
the deadline, and the need to get cracking at a time when most soldiers
would be thinking of finally relaxing. “But I dig my science.”

Parker, a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve and a new assistant
professor of biomedical engineering at Harvard’s Division of
Engineering and Applied Sciences (DEAS), was on his way home, but had
to juggle his dual lives a bit longer.

During his 10-month rotation based in Kandahar, Parker was an Army
captain with the 82nd Airborne Division, responsible with his five-man
team for patrolling 900 square kilometers of Afghanistan stretching
south to the Afghan-Pakistani border.

But he is also a scientist, a rare researcher – brought to Harvard
after a two-year search – who can bridge the worlds of engineering and

While he was patrolling the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan,
Parker’s scientific life wasn’t completely inactive. He published
papers in the journals Tissue Engineering and Circulation Research and
a third was accepted for publication in the Journal of Applied

While other soldiers may have headed to the beaches or bars for some
relaxation, Parker’s leave in May was spent in Switzerland, lecturing
at the University of Bern and at Ecole Polytechnique Federale de
Lausanne. He hadn’t done any preparation before leaving Afghanistan, so
after he arrived, he holed up in a hotel room for days to write his two

“One day I’m on patrol, the next I’m on a transport to Germany,”
Parker said. “It’s R and R, you’re supposed to relax. But I’m stressed
out because I hadn’t thought about science in six months.”

Parker’s original DEAS appointment was supposed to begin a year ago,
in September 2002. But in the months prior, Parker had become
increasingly aware that he would likely have to ship out first.

He did get to Harvard that September, but stayed barely longer than
it took to tell DEAS Dean Venkatesh Narayanamurti that his U.S. Army
Reserve unit had been called up for duty.

Narayanamurti said he thought Parker was coming in to ask for more
time to finish his postdoctoral work at Johns Hopkins Medical School,
but once he heard the true reason, he knew there was only one response.

“I said, ‘Of course. Your nation calls you, you have to go,’”
Narayanamurti said. “It’s quite usual for [newly appointed] faculty to
want to work somewhere for a year and then start here, but in my 12
years as dean of an academic institution, this situation is very rare.”

Parker jokes that he was more nervous telling Narayanamurti that he
had to leave than he was while in Afghanistan. Parker wasn’t sure
whether the job would still be waiting for him when he got back. But he
said Narayanamurti’s support was a huge boost for him during his time

“In August, a very scared paratrooper came up here to talk to the
dean,” Parker said. “I didn’t know how I was going to be received. He
was extremely supportive [then] and has been always supportive. It
meant more than he knows.”

Home just since August, Parker is at first reluctant to talk about his
experience. He’s concerned about grabbing the spotlight when every move
he made in Afghanistan relied on his five-man team. He was the team
leader, but each member leaned on the others in a place where it was
often hard to tell lies from reality, friend from foe.

Parker’s sense of duty extends beyond his men, to Afghanistan’s
children. The poverty there is shocking, he said, tough for even
soldiers from poor American neighborhoods to stomach.

The children he encountered were often malnourished and dehydrated.
Wells were almost invariably infected with E. coli bacteria. Illiteracy
was widespread to the point where a crowd would sometimes hush when he
jotted notes on his field pad. Children were also targets of
molestation, he said, which he found particularly tough to bear.

Though Parker’s thoughts are now returning to his research into
cardiac arrhythmia and to teaching, he is also searching for a way to
continue to help the children in Afghanistan. Parker said he’s made
some initial contacts with various groups, and he intends to reach out
to Harvard’s public service community in hopes an organized effort can
be mounted.

Once he begins speaking, Parker talks easily of his time there and of
his emotions since he returned. He describes being confused that he was
depressed when he got home. After all, he was home from Afghanistan
without needing the will the Army insisted he make before he left. He
should have been happy.

Then he realized what he missed: not the difficult task set for the
Army in Afghanistan, but rather the camaraderie, the sense of mission,
even the critical decision-making when lives were on the line.

“As soldiers, we are bound by this extraordinary human experience,”
Parker said. “You go through almost 300 days, then you come here and
have to turn it off cold turkey.”

Images flash through a listener’s mind as Parker describes those
months, rapid-fire, in a Tennessee drawl. They’re images of emaciated
children and dusty villages, endless cat-and-mouse games with an
elusive enemy, weekly encounters with minefields and other hidden
dangers, outright battles leaving broken bodies.

Parker is frank, even blunt, but after listening for a while one
understands not just the situation in Afghanistan, but the emotions of
serving there: fear, joy, hope, despair, and sometimes rage.

One understands, too, that emotions loom larger there than in Harvard Square.

“You feel so much extra emotion there,” he said. “Extra joy, extra
sadness, extra rage… It pegs the emotional meter on every scale.”

During his tour, Parker conducted four air and three ground assault
missions, numerous quick reaction force missions, as well as daily
patrols of as long as 20 hours, earning him The Bronze Star.

Though the tour was punctuated by the combat missions, the daily
patrols were its meat and potatoes. He and his five-man team would
regularly visit the villages in the 900-square-kilometer area he was

Parker said they worked the region like they were beat cops, visiting
regularly and trying to build rapport with village leaders and elders.
Their military objective was to find hidden weapons stores and find
Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives in the region. They also monitored the
refugee flow and assessed village safety.

With violence chasing out international aid organizations, Parker and
his team functioned as the only humanitarian aid source. They regularly
handed out food, clothing, hygiene kits, books, pens, crayons, and
other items.

The team medic regularly provided medical care and, after Parker
realized how difficult the struggle for water was in the region –
particularly for nursing mothers, he sent home for packets of baby
formula, which his mother shipped over by the case.

Once he realized the extent of the need, Parker said he e-mailed
everyone he knew, resulting in an outpouring of all types of items that
impressed even Parker and his men.

“Americans are generous people. You tell an American that a child is hurting, they’re going to step up,” Parker said.

After decades of warfare against both foreigners and other Afghans,
the villagers Parker met were wary with their information, wielding it
like a weapon. It took him months to understand how to interpret what
he was being told.

Going into a village was entering an area where veils existed between
you and reality, Parker said. The settling of personal scores was as
much a reason to label someone Taliban as anything else. He told of a
case where a guy was turned in as Taliban because his bird won a
cockfight against the informant’s bird. Parker described a second case
where the guy labeled as Taliban had stirred resentment by drawing
water from the wrong well in town.

Parker tells these stories with consternation still in his voice,
explaining that if the search for these people had gone astray, his men
could have been killed, or the Afghans mistakenly sent, ultimately, to
Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, a consequence surely out of proportion to their
local dispute.

“It was a constant struggle to sift through these veils, to figure out
what’s going on in the village,” Parker said. “It’s a very, very
complicated situation.”

Even operations that went smoothly were a challenge, Parker said. He
tells of overseeing larger operations in an Afghan village and the
difficulty of keeping his eyes on all the moving parts. U.S. soldiers,
Romanian soldiers, and Afghan militia maintained security as other
soldiers talked with village leaders. Meanwhile, Army doctors tended to
the sick.

On other combat missions, soldiers searched villages for Taliban and
al-Qaeda fighters and weapons stores, even as young medics were
treating children’s eyes for the conjunctivitis that seemed to be
everywhere. Overhead flew helicopter gunships packing enough firepower
to level the village, while over them flew B-52 bombers, just in case.

Parker and his team of paratroopers kept everything running smoothly in
a place where little usually does, knowing that at any moment, gunfire
could erupt.

Though the shift from Afghanistan to Cambridge may sometimes be jarring, Parker’s love of science smoothes the way for him.

A question about his research seems to banish Afghanistan for a few
moments. He grabs a marker and walks to the white board in his bare
Pierce Hall office. In a few moments, he has drawn depictions of ion
channels and the cell cytoskeleton in the heart – a combined target for
treatment of cardiac arrhythmia.

Arrhythmia occurs when something goes wrong with the heart’s natural
beating. Normal heartbeats are triggered by a natural pacemaker in the
upper portion of the heart. This region, called the sinoatrial, acts
like a spark plug, sending out an electrical current that causes the
heart to contract in a rhythmic way, sending blood around the body.

Problems with this electrical signal make the heart contract
unnaturally: too fast, too slow, or in the wrong order. Traditional
treatments of arrhythmia have focused on fixing the heart’s electrical
system. They usually do this by affecting the flow of ions,
electrically charged particles that carry the heart’s electrical

Parker explains that he first read biological papers on arrhythmia from
the point of view of a physicist. He immediately realized that
approaches using drugs to block any one of the dozen ion channels in
the heart wouldn’t work well. This was both due to the numerous
channels that such an approach would leave untouched, and because of
the drug’s limited control over biological and chemical processes in
the channel. Data from clinical trials supported his theory.

Parker reasoned that the traditional approach, which separates the
electrical activation of the heart from the heart’s mechanical function
as a pump, was incorrect. Parker thought that mechanical forces
modulate the heart’s electrical activation through what he terms
“mechano-electrical coupling.” His research team’s efforts are directed
toward understanding these molecular signaling pathways and identifying
which molecules might be vulnerable to therapeutic exploitation.

Results so far indicate the approach is promising.

Parker was concerned he’d come out of the Army a bit rusty
scientifically, so while posted in Kandahar, he said he tried to read
or do something science-related each day. In fact, he was drafted to
provide weekly continuing education lectures to task force surgeons
based in Afghanistan, mainly on his own research.

Parker got into the Army through ROTC while a graduate student at
Vanderbilt University, where he received a master’s degree in
mechanical engineering and a doctorate in biological and applied

He joined because things were going well for him and he felt an
obligation to give back in some way. He entered ROTC in 1992 and was
commissioned as an infantry officer in 1994.

Between that time and being called to active duty in 2002, Parker
received his doctorate in 1998 and worked as a research fellow in
pathology at Harvard Medical School in the lab of Pathology Professor
Donald Ingber at Children’s Hospital.

Parker was Narayanamurti’s first hire since 1999 in a field that the division wants to build, the dean said.

“After two years of searching, he was the one person the faculty
proposed to me as a person who could bridge the interface between
engineering and biology,” Narayanamurti said. “He really fits that mold

Narayanamurti said he expects Parker to interact with faculty in
other fields, such as Ingber at Children’s, and draw their expertise
into the budding specialty at DEAS.

“I really like the guy, there’s something about him that really draws you to him,” Narayanamurti said.

After settling in his Harvard office for a couple of weeks, Parker
says the University still seems like a dream that he feels guilty for
not waking from.

“You go from the nightmare that is Afghanistan to the dream that is
Harvard,” Parker said. “Walking across Harvard Square, Harvard Yard,
with guys still in Iraq and Afghanistan, you feel guilty. You think ‘I
don’t want someone else pulling my weight.’”

But with his service in the war on terror behind him, Parker said
he’s committed to taking full advantage of the opportunity his Harvard
appointment brings.

“My job now is to focus and bring the same mental intensity I used
in Afghanistan to the lab, to bring it to bear on the study of disease
processes,” Parker said.