Associate Professor Beth Pruitt has been elected a fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineering (ASME) for work that includes a focus on creating micro-electrical systems (MEMS) to detect the minute forces that cells exert upon one another as they carry out the basic mechanics of life.
Pruitt, who holds an appointment in mechanical engineering and a courtesy appointment in molecular and cellular physiology, is a member of Stanford Bio-X, the university’s cross-disciplinary effort to better our understand biological systems and thus advance human health.
ASME fellows are recognized for significant career achievements which, in Pruitt’s case, involves creating sophisticated sensors and analytical software to detect, for instance, the smallest amount of force necessary to tickle C. elegans, a tiny roundworm used as model to help scientists understand nervous system responses.
“Our work involves building instruments to detect precisely when a nervous system response is triggered, so that we can test at the molecular level how that mechanical signal travels,” Pruitt said.
Pruitt, whose father and sister are also engineers, said she was drawn to the field by a curiosity about how things worked. “In some ways mechanical engineering underpins everything in our lives,” she said.
Now she studies the mechanical forces that enable living cells, and their constituent proteins, to serve as the gears and wheels of life.
Her research falls into four broad areas: exploring the nervous system; understanding what hold cells together in tissues such as the skin; helping to develop heart stem cells into working muscles; and building the instruments required to discern and manipulate such small mechanical systems.
Tom Abate is Associate Director of Communications at Stanford Engineering.