People are often curious about why Julia Alspaugh's research as a mechanical engineering graduate student seems more about biomedicine than traditional mechanics. For the second-year master's student, however, the disciplines mesh perfectly.
"I see mechanical engineering as a broad field that analyzes the world's processes and how the machinery and technology that makes them work can be simplified and improved," says Julia, who earned her undergraduate degree from Virginia Tech. "In this case, what I'm analyzing is the human body — it's our most complex machine and there is always more we can learn about it."
- Without a trace
Julia is part of a large, interdisciplinary team seeking numerous patents related to the use of novel, resorbable biomaterials to create fixation devices for next-generation orthopedic devices, such as the plates, pins and screws used to set broken limbs or repair damaged tissues and joints.
"These devices would provide support while the bone and joint healed, for example, then degrade within a few years without leaving any foreign or potentially toxic materials in the body," she explains. "It's a similar concept to the dissolving stitches now used in many dental surgeries, but on a larger and more complex scale."
- Mentor material
Outside the research lab, Julia can often be found working on her own machine at Purdue's newly renovated France A. Córdova Recreational Sports Center, where this summer she'll teach a strength class combining Pilates and yoga.
Julia also is active in Purdue's Women in Engineering Program as both a member and a leader. She's currently serving as one of two ME ambassadors in the organization's Graduate Mentoring Program. "It's a way for women engineers to get to know each other, provide support and encourage our younger peers' interest in the discipline."
- Working theories
Julia first became interested in engineering because she wanted to know how things work. The pivotal moment came in junior high when the hard drive on her father's computer failed and was replaced. "I took apart the old one to see what was inside and how everything fit together," she says.
That soon led Julia to taking apart old VCRs and other disused household items. "I soon realized that if I really wanted to know how something worked, I also needed to know how to put it back together," she says. "That's the first step in understanding how to make it work better."
- Novel challenges
For Julia, the most surprising thing she's encountered in the patent process is unrelated to engineering or biomedicine.
"Learning how to make sure what we are working on is novel and patentable has been more challenging than expected," she says. "It may be an awesome new technology, but we also have to keep in mind its marketability. It requires communication between many different people with different interests and ways of doing things."