Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Biomimicking: Engineering Design from Natural Structures

By M. Bowman, Sarah Darkwa, and Adam Davison

            Dr. Lorna Gibson, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT, presented her research on Biomimicking: Engineering Design from Natural Structures at ESF on Tuesday, February 14, 2006 as part of SUNY ESF's Women in Scientific and Environmental Professions Spring Seminar Series. The ESF Women’s Caucus and the Faculty of Environmental Resources and Forest Engineering jointly sponsored the seminar.
Dr. Gibson discussed naturally occurring structures in plants and animals in terms of how they provide flexural rigidity and resist critical loading.  In other words, how the structures provide both strength and flexibility without overly increasing weight of the animal or significantly reducing photosynthetic capacity of the plant. 
These structures fall into several categories: iris and cattail leaves are structural sandwich panels, while plant stems, bluejay feathers, and porcupine quills are cylindrical shells with compliant cores. Both types of structures are comprised of fibers or a dense shell on the outside with a foam core on the inside.  Sandwich panels are typically a low-density core material sandwiched in between two higher modulus plates, which allows for a lightweight structure with a high rigidity and load capability. Skis and helicopter rotor blades are similarly constructed to reduce their weight without compromising their strength.  The compliance of the core material provides resistance in all directions, which allows stems to resist and prevents bird feathers from kinking.
Other efficient structures for load resistance are represented by palm trees, bamboo, and woods such as oak. Wood in particular has a uniform cylindrical structure or “honeycomb” and is one of the most efficient at resisting loads. The gradient structure of palm trees and bamboos that allows the stems to grow taller without adding diameter at the ground level had a large influence on the engineering of bone scaffolds.
The scaffold that Dr. Gibson and her colleagues are working on is mineralized collagen foam that is comprised of different gradients. This scaffold is particularly useful for joint implants, since joints are an interface of bone and cartilage. So far they have tested their scaffolds in the joints of sheep and goats with very promising results for human use.
Professor Lorna J. Gibson received her Bachelor of Applied Science degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Toronto in 1978 and her PhD from the University of Cambridge in 1981. She was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of British Columbia from 1982-84. She joined the MIT faculty in 1984, where she is currently the Matoula S. Salapatas Professor of Materials Science and Engineering. Her research interests focus on the mechanical behavior of highly porous materials with a cellular structure, such as engineering foams, trabecular bone and scaffolds used in tissue engineering. She is the co-author, with Professor M.F. Ashby, of the book "Cellular Solids: Structure and Properties". She has been active in MIT’s gender equity efforts, chairing the Committee on Women Faculty in the School of Engineering.  The next presentation in the Women in Scientific and Environmental Professions speaker series is March 28.  Nancy Grulke, Project Leader, Atmospheric Deposition on Western Ecosystems and plysiological ecologist, Pacific Southwest Research Station, will discuss “Air pollution and the Californian wildfires:  an insidious link” at 4 pm in 140 Baker Laboratory.  For more information, visit http://www.esf.edu/womenscaucus. 

But you don't look like an engineer.

Following her campus-wide lecture on Biomimicking:  engineering design from Natural Structures,  Dr. Lorna Gibson joined us for a discussion of the infamous climate for women at MIT.  Her perception is that things have outwardly improved, but one trend that remains concerns her: MIT's tendency to hire their own graduates appears to extend only to men.  Because these new hires already have mentoring relationships among the faculty, often continue on the same research projects, and know where to go for further assistance, they have a great advantage over hires from outside the institution.  Since women faculty almost exclusively come from elsewhere, they start at a disadvantage, and because disadvantages accumulate (see seminar syllabi for readings on the subject), it is very difficult to overcome.  In addition, these younger men seem to have adopted not only the methods and styles of their mentors, but also their prejudices.  With the biases entrenched in the faculties, hopes that the climate would improve with the eventual retirement of the old guard seem overly optimistic.

Tuesday, February 7, 2006

Gardens, Medicine and Health Care: Past, Present and Future

By Cynthia Watson, Doreen Bwalya and Donna Lowe

Dr. Joanne M. Westphal, Professor of Landscape Architecture, Michigan State University, discussed Gardens, Medicine and Health Care: Past, Present and Future at ESF on Tuesday, February 7, 2006 to launch the annual SUNY ESF’s Women in Scientific and Environmental Professions Spring Seminar Series. Dr Westphal’s seminar was jointly sponsored by the Faculty of Landscape Architecture and the Women’s Caucus at SUNY-ESF. 
Dr. Westphal discussed several issues of health in the built environment including design that complements medical treatment protocols, therapeutic site designs and post-construction evaluation of therapeutic site designs.
Historically, gardens were a fundamental element in health care systems and occupied the center core of hospital compounds. Gardens were regarded an essential aspect of treatment for hospital patients; until the 1880’s every medical facility in Europe and the United States had gardens for patients to ambulate. However, as new discoveries were made there was a tremendous shift in hospital design. Hospitals were built up instead of out and the center core formerly occupied by a garden was replaced with mechanical and specialty units. Essentially the “Germ theory” coincided with the demise of the garden in hospitals.
Today health care professionals such as Dr. Westphal support the idea that positive health benefits can result when “active living components,” including gardens and open spaces, are incorporated into the designs of hospital and health care facilities. Dr. Westphal and her research team conducted a study to evaluate the effects of the presence of therapeutic gardens on post-treatment recovery for patients suffering with third stage Alzheimer’s Disease. They found that there was a significant reduction in aggressive behavior and blood pressure, and that less “as needed” medication was requested by or for patients who spent as little as ten minutes walking or resting in a garden. The implications of these passive garden experiences for hospital patients can be tremendous; resulting not only in improved patient health but also substantial savings in medications and reduced stress to health care staff.  
Dr. Joanne Westphal is a practicing landscape architect and licensed physician in Michigan. A member of the School of Planning, Design and Construction at Michigan State University, her specialty areas involve environmental design, therapeutic site design, regional landscape design, and research methodology.