Engineer Patricia Yang won an IgNobel prize for flushing out a universal law of animal urination. Next up? Discovering why wombat stools come out as cubes


Suzi Eszterhas/FLPA

FOR Patricia Yang, bodies are a series of tubes fine-tuned to pump the gory and the gross: blood, urine and faeces. A mechanical engineer at the Georgia Institute of Technology, she studies the fluid dynamics of what goes round inside living bodies, and what comes out of them. She has won an Ig Nobel prize, which celebrates unusual science that makes people laugh, and it is well deserved.

Yang does the dirty work of handling faeces-filled wombat intestines, gathering pig’s blood from slaughterhouses and designing makeshift elephant urethras – all for the sake of science. And she can’t get enough of it.

When people ask what you do, what do you tell them?

I’m an engineer. I study blood, I study pee and I study poop. When I tell people that, they have a hard time linking engineering with biology, but I don’t see a distinction between the two. Animals use engineering to survive. Body fluids work for us, carrying nutrition or waste or oxygen. These fluids have a purpose, and I want to know how they work.

How did you start studying bodily fluids?

African pipit
An African pipit sits on elephant dung

Pieter Espeel/Getty

I’ve liked animals since I was really young. When I started my PhD, my adviser was potty training his kid and had been doing a lot of waiting around for his son to pee. He had to do the same thing with his dog. He wanted to know what urination was like at the extremes – for the smallest animals and the largest. He asked me how long it would take for an elephant to pee. I said, …

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