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Meeting the father of biomechanics: priceless

Sept. 28, 2007
By George Mauzy | Photos by Rick Fatica

First-year faculty member John Cotton never imagined he would meet the man who wrote the book on biomechanics.

Photos by Rick FaticaAn assistant professor of mechanical engineering, Cotton was among several fortunate Ohio University faculty members who had a chance to pick the brain of 2007 Russ Prize recipient Yuan-Cheng "Bert" Fung during the award-winner's visit to campus Thursday. Known as the father of modern biomechanics, the world-renowned Fung spent the day interacting with faculty, staff and students and wrapped up his visit with a 45-minute lecture in Baker University Center Theatre. 

Fung, a professor emeritus of bioengineering at the University of California, San Diego, won the 2007 Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ Prize, one of the top three engineering prizes in the world. The National Academy of Engineering presented the award's $500,000 cash prize to him in February.

"For academic types like me, meeting him is like seeing the Rolling Stones," Cotton said. "I have literally taught courses from his books. His 'Biomechanics' book is timeless, because it was the first one to apply strong mathematics principles to biological tissues." 

OK, so Fung's visit lacked the screaming middle-aged fans who turn out for Mick Jagger; it still excited more than a few people. Throughout the day, researchers and students approached the 88-year-old Fung with questions about his research and asked him to pose for pictures and sign books. 

One graduate student in the College of Osteopathic Medicine's haptic back lab in Irvine Hall referred to a copy of "Biomechanics" lying on a nearby desk "our bible." After haptic back lab techs and grad students took turns showing Fung the technology they use to train aspiring doctors how to use their hands to diagnose patients, mechanical engineering graduate student Ernur Karadogan asked Fung to autograph the textbook.

One person who regrettably missed Fung's visit was Associate Professor of Biomedical Sciences John Howell, a key researcher in the haptic back lab. "John really wanted to meet you, Dr. Fung," said research associate Bob Conatser, "because he always says your research taught him most of what he knows about lungs." 

Lab associate Kapil Bajaj credited Fung with being the first person to provide an accurate model of how the human lung works. "In classic physiology, a wrong model of how the lung worked was used until Dr. Fung created an accurate one," Bajaj said. "He redefined lung structure. The way he simplifies people's understanding of the human body by applying engineering principles is pretty awesome."

Fung, also a top researcher in body tissue engineering, visited the lab of faculty members Doug Goetz and David Tees in Clippinger Hall. Their research studies how white blood cells get trapped in the small blood vessels of the lung, which is among Fung's favorite parts of the anatomy. 

Photos by Rick Fatica"I am fascinated with the lung," Fung said. "I like how lungs heal themselves and are machine-like. They are flexible, sturdy and rarely hurt." 

Seven Russ College of Engineering and Technology Student Ambassadors had the honor of being first on Fung's itinerary for the day. They plied him with questions over coffee cake: How did you get interested in lungs? Which of your inventions is your favorite? Why did you leave a successful career in aeronautical engineering to study the human body?

Fung said he began applying engineering skills to the human body while trying to figure out ways to make automobiles safer for drivers during a crash. Once his research delved into the body, he was hooked, eventually switching his research focus to biomechanics.

"The human body is fascinating. I have been studying it a long time and I still don't think I understand it very well," he said, chuckling.

Senior mechanical engineering major Mike Starkey, one of the ambassadors, felt privileged to meet Fung. "It was nice of him to visit with us," he said, "and since I am pursuing a career in biomechanics, it was especially great for me."

The Russ Prize is a biennial award recognizing engineering achievement that improves the human condition. The late Fritz Russ, an Ohio University engineering graduate, and his wife, Dolores, established it in 1999 with a multimillion-dollar endowment to The Ohio University Foundation. 

"My visit has been great," Fung said. "I've learned a lot about Ohio University today, and I really liked the interaction I had with the students and faculty."

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Published: Jul 20, 2006 3:50:00 PM
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