Collaboration happens here a lot. It’s a great environment for creativity and innovation.

Donna Ebenstein

Professor Donna Ebenstein, biomedical engineering, has always been fascinated by the structures, properties and patterns found in nature. "Innovative adhesives have been inspired by gecko feet," she says. "The patterns of shark skin are now being replicated in silicone to create antimicrobial surfaces. Stain-resistant fabrics mimic the self-cleaning properties of lotus leaves. The list goes on and on."  

Ebenstein is particularly interested in the natural strength of spider silk. If it can be successfully replicated, spider silk will have many uses in the medical field, from bandages and surgical thread to artificial tendons and ligaments, she explains. Spider silk could even be used to support weak blood vessels.

Studying substances as delicate as spider silk or the minute hairs on gecko feet demands exceptional equipment, and Ebenstein's face lights up with enthusiasm as she describes the labs at Bucknell. "Confocal microscopes, atomic force microscopes, scanning electronic microscopes. It's a liberal arts institution with equipment you'd expect to find at a facility that's dedicated solely to research," she says.

Ebenstein's primary research focuses on micro- and nanoindenters, two pieces of equipment that can be used to measure mechanical properties of small and irregularly shaped biological materials. She and her students are involved in a bone-density research project along with other members of the biomedical engineering department and the orthopaedics department at nearby Geisinger Medical Center. Their goal is to discover better ways to test bone quality, especially in localized areas such as the hip. The microindenter is used on pig and cow bones as well as on donated human femurs. Results are compared to those of a study spearheaded by her colleague Professor Eric Kennedy that involves the force needed to extract wire from the same bones.

"Collaboration happens here a lot," says Ebenstein, who also uses the indenters to help colleagues in the biology department crush pollen grains and study the stiffness of bat wings and turtle shells, and works with the chemical engineering department to crack open succinic acid microparticles. "Everyone really supports each other," she says. "It's a great environment for creativity and innovation."

Posted Sept. 22, 2014