Former Missile Site Now “A Unique Research Lab; A Nice Little Community”

Andrew Biewener, Charles P. Lyman Professor of Biology
Concord Field Station

Not much has changed around the compound at the end of Old Causeway Road where a Nike missile installation helped protect the Boston area from enemy attacks, over five years beginning in November 1956.

Externally, that is.

Inside the drab concrete buildings and bunkers are the laboratories of Harvard University’s Concord Field Station, which according to its website “supports physiological and biomechanical laboratory-based research of animal performance, seeking to understand how animals operate in their natural environment. We seek to identify fundamental principles of animal movement and structure-function relationships…”

Prof. Andrew Biewener has served as director of the field station since 1998. “It’s a nice little community out here – I try not to take it for granted,” he commented. “This is a unique research lab,” combining indoor and outdoor space and the potential for wide-ranging studies.

The facility almost exclusively serves doctoral candidates, post-doctoral fellows, and other graduate students.

Those missiles were part of a Cold War national line of air defense surrounding major urban and industrial areas; there were about a dozen in metro Boston. The missiles would be activated only if enemy bombers evaded Air Force aircraft. Nike was soon obsolete and the Bedford site was deactivated at the end of 1961.

The land reverted to the Pickman Family, who for generations owned hundreds of acres along Dudley Road and the Concord River. Two years later, Harvard purchased the land and began transforming the facilities into a research institution.

Today the nearly-65-acre complex is an extension of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology and the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. Geographically it’s not far from the Estabrook Woods in Concord and Carlisle, where the university owns and manages hundreds of acres of land for research and teaching purposes.

Biewener received his Ph.D. in 1981 in organizational biology and anatomy, and taught for 16 years at the University of Chicago, including undergraduates and medical students.

He was recruited to Harvard – and the field station – in 1998 to succeed the late C. Richard Taylor, a renowned biology professor who served as director of the Bedford facility for nearly three decades. Biewener said he welcomed the opportunity “to move to another elite university for the second half of my career.”

“My research interests always have been animal locomotion,” Biewener said, not only how the skeleton is designed but also neuromuscular functions – how the nervous system controls muscle contraction.”

The field station website explains, “Our research examines the biomechanics and aerodynamics of movement through terrestrial and aerial environments, in relation to an animal’s underlying neuromuscular physiology. We do so by linking laboratory experiments to environmentally relevant locomotive movement.”

“We like animals and we like to take care of them well,” the director stated. Over the years, researchers have hosted hopping desert rodents known as jerboas, wallabies and a kangaroo, mallard ducks, Canada geese, and mute swans.

The website enumerates some current lab projects: “studies of how walking and running animals maintain stability when perturbed; how muscle models can be improved to provide more robust simulations of animal and human movement; how birds integrate visual information to avoid obstacles and maneuver through cluttered environments; how grebes run on water; and how the locomotor behavior of jerboas reduces their predation risk.”

The researchers are awaiting confirmation of a renewed grant from the National Institutes of Health to continue work on a study of human gait, based on muscular-skeletal modeling, using goats and rats, the director said. “My last Ph.D. student was studying how opossums walk compared to tegu lizards.”

Several years ago Biewener arranged for the construction of a wind tunnel on the former missile storage site. He explained that a wind tunnel can be considered a treadmill for birds, and “it takes a lot of space. We bought a fan and motor system from a company that ventilates mine shafts.

“We work with guinea fowl; they run on treadmills really well,” Biewener said. For 18 years they have been the focus of research on how the nervous system coordinates muscular stability. Also, high-speed video exemplifies ways that technology has enhanced research over the years. Hummingbird wings move 42 times a second; “when we slow it down we get a lot of insight.”

Then there’s the emu – a familiar sight to many folks who have ventured to the field station in recent years. Originally the subject of a doctoral student’s 2008 research on “bone biomechanics,” the emu is now considered a mascot, Biewener said. “It has a good, healthy life,” adapting to the winter weather and tolerating goats and guinea fowl, while preferring solitude.

The field station director still teaches some courses to undergraduates, even a freshman class on biology of movement. He is contemplating retirement in two years or so. “I can continue to do research as an emeritus,” he said, acknowledging that his impact is perpetuated by the scientists he has trained.

There’s a small permanent staff supporting the field station: a facility manager, two administrators, and an employee who is responsible for the welfare of all the animals.

Biewener also noted that the Museum of Comparative Zoology maintains space for a skeletal collection – whales, porpoises, dolphins — beneath one of the bunkers where the missiles were housed.


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Myra Fournier
3 months ago

So interesting. Who knew!!!! I’m curious as to what happens to the animals after their study time is over. And, whether the public can visit or attend classes.

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