I love involving students with my research. Besides the scientific progress, it's a form of giving back. We're not going to be here forever, so we're training the next generation.
"Many of the most challenging research problems today are interdisciplinary," says Professor Christine Buffinton, mechanical engineering. "Your academic home doesn't necessarily dictate what you do research in."
Buffinton knows that as well as anyone. A mechanical engineer with an interest in biology, her first big research project was part of a multimillion-dollar National Institutes of Health grant at the University of Rochester Medical Center for the study of heart development and congenital heart defects.
Despite having no previous hands-on experience with heart research, Buffinton joined a team of pediatric cardiologists and geneticists focusing on the development of the heart as a biomechanical system. She was hired to measure the properties of tissue in embryonic chick hearts, mainly because of her earlier experimental work with guinea pig cochlea, parts of the inner ear, which are also very tiny in size.
"I'm fairly good with dissection. A lot of this work requires you to look through a microscope and do microsurgery, such as tying a suture with a diameter one-fifth that of a human hair around a small structure in the developing heart," Buffinton says.
"The cardiologist who started this study believed that geneticists were overlooking the fact that the heart is a mechanical system. All the time that it's developing and changing form, it's beating at the same time," she says. "This was at the forefront of the new field of mechanobiology, which deals with how cells and tissues sense and respond to mechanical stimuli, and the way that forces affect development and disease. Mechanical forces, and the stress and strain that they cause, affect almost every process in the body.
"My work really is mechanical analysis, but applied to a very small biological structure instead of, for example, a piece of steel. As you can imagine, the biological structure is much more complicated."
Buffinton has continued her work in heart research at Bucknell, teaming with a geneticist from Geisinger Medical Center to examine congenital heart defects in genetically altered mice embryos, and with a Geisinger pediatric cardiologist on printing 3D models of actual human hearts based on CT scans.
Her larger-scale projects, such as the 3D printing of hearts and the creation of mathematical models to help bipedal robots better maintain their balance, are especially popular with students, no matter what their major.
"I love involving students with my research," Buffinton says. "Besides the scientific progress, it's a form of giving back. We're not going to be here forever, so we're training the next generation."
Updated Sept. 30, 2016