Buchanan brings engineering and biology together in inaugural lecture
Thomas S. Buchanan delivers his inaugural lecture as George W. Laird Professor of Mechanical Engineering.


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8:26 a.m., March 8, 2010----Thomas S. Buchanan delivered his inaugural lecture as George W. Laird Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Delaware on Thursday, March 4, to an audience that included an almost equal number of faculty from engineering and the health sciences.

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The mix of people reflected the mix of mechanics and medicine in Buchanan's work that goes back to the 1970s -- a time before bioengineering was a common entry in the academic lexicon. “I remember being the translator between my two Ph.D. advisers,” Buchanan said, “explaining the engineering side to one and the medical side to the other.”

Buchanan said that he has always been fascinated with how the brain controls the body, and it was this fascination that prompted him to go to graduate school at Northwestern University after completing his bachelor's degree at the University of San Diego.

His lecture, “Neuromusculoskeletalicious,” addressed his current research on the development of patient-specific neuromuscular and musculoskeletal models. “There's a lot of attention on patient-specific approaches right now,” Buchanan said, “ranging from artificial knees to complex surgical techniques designed specifically for a given individual.”

He and his research group are modeling the forces in muscles, ligaments, tendons, and cartilage in healthy and impaired individuals and using these tools to understand disease progression and guide the development of appropriate treatment paths.

Models are useful in making predictions, but, Buchanan pointed out, there is always a discrepancy between parameters -- for example, the forces exerted by a muscle -- predicted by a model and those measured in the laboratory. “That's the way science works,” he said.

Patient-specific models require a way to incorporate patient-specific information, so the researchers are using modern bioimaging techniques such as ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging to gather information from an individual and then “tune” or “train” the model to improve its predictive accuracy. Treatment protocols can then be developed based on how the person's body is actually responding to an illness or injury rather than on an ideal or typical value.

Buchanan has worked extensively with Lynn Snyder-Mackler, Alumni Distinguished Professor of Physical Therapy at UD, on a project involving people with anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, injuries. “Lynn has really helped us to steer our work toward the clinical side,” he said. “Without her, we wouldn't be nearly as far along as we are.”

Buchanan said he believes that the most interesting problems occur at the interface between biology and engineering. “A lot is happening there,” he said. “Some of the knowledge that will enable the development of patient-specific treatment approaches will come from biology, and some will come from engineering. Biological tissues are very active, and the repair process is an interesting topic of study for biologists. At the same time, a lot is driven by the mechanics, so you can also look at it from the engineering side.”

Buchanan is president of the American Society of Biomechanics and a fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, and the American College of Sports Medicine.

The 2008 recipient of the E.A. Trabant Award for Women's Equity, he is credited with playing a key role in the increase in women faculty in engineering at UD and with engaging his female colleagues in collaborative research.

Buchanan earned his doctorate in theoretical and applied mechanics from Northwestern University. He joined the UD faculty in 1996, served as chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering from 2004 to 2008, and was appointed deputy dean in the College of Engineering in 2008. He has also served as academic director of UD's interdisciplinary Biomechanics and Movement Science Program and director of its Center for Biomedical Engineering Research.

The Laird professorship honors the memory of George W. Laird, who earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering in 1968 and a master's in mechanical and aerospace engineering in 1971. Laird was killed in a tragic accident in 1977.

Article by Diane Kukich
Photo by Doug Baker