While studying mechanical engineering as an undergraduate at Cornell University, Professor Kris Billiar came across a course on biomechanics, and was fascinated by the concept.
“I loved to tinker with machines and such,” he says, “but I thought the body was the coolest machine, because it could actually change in response to what you do.”
Biomechanics, which employs the principles of mechanics to study biological problems, is a wide-ranging and growing field, spanning all the way from the molecular level to full organisms – humans, animals, and plants alike.
Every four years, the leaders in the field and upcoming protégés get together to discuss new developments, research, challenges, and opportunities as part of the World Congress of Biomechanics, held this year in July at Boston’s Hynes Convention Center.
WPI was there in force, all the way from undergraduates and teachers to graduate students and professors, who were organizers, session chairs, presenters, and volunteers.” —K.B.
Billiar, a professor of biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering and a Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, served as a liaison for ASME, helping organize numerous sessions.
The seventh annual, six-day event brought together engineers, biologists, mathematicians, physicists, computer scientists, chemists, and scientists with various clinical specialties to study everything from basic biology to the latest technological advancements in more than 400 different sessions.
Because of its location and the growing interest in the field, it attracted 4,000-plus attendees from at least 50 countries, Billiar says, calling it “by far the largest biomechanics conference ever.”
In the past, the World Congress has been held in California and cities around the world, typically drawing around 2,000 participants. The next is scheduled to be held in 2018 in Dublin.
Because of its proximity to Worcester, many WPI professors, students, and even local middle school teachers had the opportunity to participate, he says.
“WPI was there in force, all the way from undergraduates and teachers to graduate students and professors, who were organizers, session chairs, presenters, and volunteers,” says Billiar. “We took full advantage of it.
“I’m most proud that many students from around the country participating in our National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program and local middle school teachers participating in our NSF-funded Research Experiences for Teachers (RET) program were able to attend the conference,” he adds. “It’s quite an experience to attend an international conference of this scale and see all of the amazing research being presented!”
RANGE OF TOPICS
At any given time during the event, he says, there were 20 parallel sessions taking place on a range of topics, with tracks of talks organized by scale from the whole body, to tissues and cells, and even at the molecular level. Speakers discussed topics ranging from the biomechanics of injuries, to pediatric cardiology, to ligaments and tendons, gait, plaque vulnerability, motor control, reproductive health, dental mechanics, tissue engineering, cell forces, and how swimmers generate and use flow.
Meanwhile, larger plenary sessions featured more than a dozen respected names in the field, including Dennis Discher from the University of Pennsylvania, Farshid Guilak from Duke University, and Melody Swartz from École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.
Billiar, himself, led sessions on research he’s doing at WPI on mechanobiology, which he says is an emerging field at the intersection of biomechanics and cell biology.
In his tissue mechanics and mechanobiology lab, which he established in 2002, WPI students and faculty members investigate the influence of the local mechanical environment – such as stiffness, deformation, and various forces – on development, growth and healing of soft connective tissue.
“It’s understanding how a cell, or even molecules, work by pulling and pushing them, putting them in soft and stiff environments, and analyzing the cell’s behavior computationally,” he explains.
As he predicts, there’s going to be a “new phase” of personalized medical care that will also include mechanical medicines that can modify cells’ behavior and sensitivity to existing treatments. “There’s a growing understanding that the mechanical environment modifies how cells actually behave,” he says. “If we can understand how and why cells respond to their mechanical surroundings, we can start controlling for that, and create much more effective treatments.”
– BY TARYN PLUMB