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She explores the behavior of blood vessels for her honors thesis

Alison Disbrow ’08 (Belvidere, N.J.) is pursuing an A.B. in Engineering Studies. She is currently working on her honors thesis focusing on the deformation of biological tissues, specifically blood vessels. She is working with Joshua Smith, assistant professor of mechanical engineering. The following is a first-hand account of Disbrow’s experiences with researching and writing her thesis.

I am currently writing a thesis with Professor Joshua Smith, a new faculty member in the department of mechanical engineering, on a bioengineering topic concerning the deformation of biological tissue.

While I knew that I wanted to work on a bioengineering topic, I had not previously been involved with research, so I wanted to work with a professor who had a topic in mind and was willing to share his or her ideas with me. Sharon Jones, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and chair of Engineering Studies, mentioned Professor Smith to me and we were able to work out a topic that was of interest to both of us. I began the research when I came back to school in August.

The first task of this project, from my standpoint, was to develop an appropriate mathematical framework so that I may simulate experiments that are used to define the mechanical properties of the tissue. The goal of the thesis is to make observations that can be used to recommend an optimal set of conditions and to collect the most useful experimental data.

Professor Smith has helped me this semester to learn the basics of continuum mechanics, a subject that is typically studied by first- or second-year engineering graduate students. We have recently started the simulation phase of the project.

The biological tissue that we are working to characterize is that of blood vessels, which are typically modeled as cylindrically orthotropic. That means that the tissue behaves differently if subjected to an internal pressure than if it was stretched along its length. We will characterize the tissue by performing several numerical simulations of a shear test of the material using the finite element method.

The design is similar to an approach taken by researchers at the University of Utah for developing experiments on ligament tissue. Similar to their experimental design, we will test a variety of experimental conditions including aspect ratio, tissue clamping conditions, and material orientation. These simulations will aid in the design of a simple shear experiment for the mechanical testing of soft tissue. After the results of the test are analyzed, we can determine if a two-dimensional, planar test is sufficient for collecting data suitable for mathematically describing the tissue.

When I agreed to do this thesis, I was unsure of whether or not I wanted to go to graduate school, but I was confident that if I did, it would be in bioengineering. I was always interested in the mechanical movement of the body, so the idea that Professor Smith presented to me seemed attractive.

Working with Professor Smith has exposed me to a completely different level of understanding than I originally had of the bioengineering field. It has helped me look at it in different ways and consider more detailed areas that I may choose to pursue, if I do pursue graduate school in bioengineering. This project has also allowed me to work on a subject that I would not have been able to explore if I wasn’t working with a professor on a graduate level topic.

My current goal for the future is really to gain some more valuable experience from writing the thesis in terms of my analytical, writing, and presentation skills. Currently, Professor Smith has been a huge mentor in the process and has taught me what I need to know in order to continue on my own. I hope that by the spring semester I can be working more independently and be able to devise my own simulations and ideas about what we can investigate further.

Disbrow is a member of Tau Beta Pi (the Engineering Honor Society), Pi Beta Phi Sorority, and the Leonardo Society, in which she served as social chair. Last semester, she studied abroad in Florence, Italy. Over the summer, Disbrow served as an EXCEL Scholar and performed research with Javad Tavakoli, professor of chemical engineering. She has also served as a writing associate.

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