Could we create 3D models of the brain so accurate that surgeons could use them to plan operations? Build space probes that hop over the surfaces of low-gravity comets and asteroids? Or develop micro-devices that would train lab-grown muscle cells to patch damaged hearts?
These were just three among the more than one hundred projects that were showcased at a recent conference designed to give students and faculty a chance to get a sense of the broad range of interdisciplinary initiatives being pursued by members of Stanford's mechanical engineering community.
“We all spend so much time focused on our own areas that we thought it would be valuable to create an opportunity for everyone to see all the other interesting work that is going on,” said Ellen Kuhl, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and one of the organizers of the first Mechanical Engineering Conference (MECON).
This inaugural MECON, held May 1, featured 18 research talks and 92 poster presentations. Associate Professor Xiaolin Zheng and graduate students Alexander Zollner, Charbel Eid and Martin Winterkorn worked with Kuhl, Zheng and Kenneth Goodson, the Robert Bosch Chairman of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, to organize a daylong series of events that culminated with an awards presentation by Persis Drell, the Frederick Emmons Terman Dean of the Stanford School of Engineering.
A midday poster session and luncheon was a social high point of the day as the entire department turned out to eat wrapped sandwiches, sip soft drinks and walk down the rows of students eager to brief colleagues on their projects.
At one poster, graduate student Joy Ann Franco explained how mechanical engineers are researching ways to develop a type of repair kit for failing hearts. Our hearts beat thanks to specialized muscle cells known as cardiomyocytes. In heart failure, these cardiomyocytes stop working properly or die altogether. Unfortunately, the heart does not heal itself, and so the damaged cells cannot be repaired. Biomedical researchers would like to use cardiomyocytes derived from stem cells in the lab to patch damaged heart tissue. But so far there’s been a hitch. Researchers have not yet learned how to coax their stem cell-derived cardiomyocytes to look and behave like working heart cells. Franco is collaborating with postdoctoral scholar Alexandre Ribeiro and Associate Professor Beth Pruitt on the following approach: creating micro-devices that would train lab-grown cardiomyocytes the way a gardener might train ivy to grow up a lattice.
Farther down the row of presenters, graduate student Caitlin Ploch held a three-dimensional replica of a brain as she explained her poster. CT scans and similar technologies can image the brain with great precision. Marrying such scans with 3D printing technology makes it possible to create accurate models of a patient’s brain injury. Ploch is working with Graduate School of Business student Chris Mansi and Kuhl to use these realistic models as preoperative training tools to help neurosurgeons plan and practice complex procedures.
Turning to space exploration, PhD student Ben Hockman let visitors hold the cube-shaped prototype described in his poster. Hockman is working with Marco Pavone, assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics, to solve a problem: how to explore asteroids, comets and small moons whose low gravity make their surfaces ill-suited for rover-type explorers. The possible solution, embodied in the cube that visitors got to hold, was a satellite engineered to hop lightly from point to point like a tumbleweed, yet sturdy enough so that its instrumentation could survive repeated shocks.
“Mechanical engineering is an incredibly broad discipline, and the talks and posters at this first MECON demonstrate how our students and faculty are collaborating across the entire campus,” said Goodson, who is also the Davies Family Provostial Professor at Stanford.
Goodson introduced Drell, who closed this successful first conference by presenting awards to some of the notable speakers and posters.
Three undergraduates were among those honored by the dean: Pedro Milani, Will Roderick and Andrea Stein. Four graduate poster presenters received special mention: Yanli Wang, Tany Liu, Erica Castillo and Georgios Katsikis. Three graduate podium awards went to Hardik Kanaria, Michael Barako and Mona Eskandari.
“I am delighted at the way this first MECON turned out,” Goodson said. “We owe so much to the student and faculty organizers and to all the members of the ME community who took part.”