Jasiuk Transforms Her Research Path

A close-up view of finite element mesh from digital microCT images
A close-up view of finite element mesh from digital microCT images

Mechanical Science and Engineering faculty member Iwona Jasiuk kept her interest in synthetic materials and engineering while moving to a focus on biology.

Iwona Jasiuk's research work could be seen as an analogy to her career path. A professor in the Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering, Jasiuk's research involves the micro-mechanics of materials. For most researchers, that usually means man-made materials, and that was the case for Jasiuk until about a decade ago when she began studying biological materials, focusing on bone.

These days, Jasiuk's research is still in a transition phase, as she continues to work with synthetic materials but enjoys more and more collaborations involving biology. Jasiuk, who is a member of Beckman's 3-D Micro and Nanosystems group, says she began switching from working solely with synthetic materials to projects that also involve biology for a very simple reason.

"It's great to be an engineer, but I was missing a connection to humans, and I got that through biomechanics and biomedical applications." - Iwona Jasiuk

"It's great to be an engineer, but I was missing a connection to humans, and I got that through biomechanics and biomedical applications," she said. "What I'm doing is still mechanics; it's just applied to the biological area. I'm still working with materials; it's just living materials as opposed to synthetic materials." Not that this transition has been easy, Jasiuk said. "It's like trying to get tenure in two departments. I enjoy being exposed to different fields, but I don't want to spread myself too thin."

To move from a focus on synthetics to biology, Jasiuk sought out collaborators who excelled in their fields.

"To go into a new area, to bring a perspective from one area to another is very difficult to do alone," she said. "So the idea is to collaborate with people who are already in the field that I am entering and basically bring my perspective to that field. I was lucky to find such collaborations."

Jasiuk's collaborations are truly interdisciplinary, and they include a current project with Jo Ann Cameron, an Associate Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology, on large bone repair. They are studying frogs as they can later be used as a model for the study of limb regeneration. While tadpoles can regenerate new limbs when one is lost, adult frogs cannot. The project involves implanting a synthetic scaffold around which natural tissue will grow.

"There are questions about which materials to choose for scaffolds," Jasiuk said. "There are biological issues such as what types of stimuli are needed to promote bone and other tissue growth into the scaffold. And since I'm coming from mechanics, my contribution is how can mechanical stimuli help promote growth.

"We study properties of bone and then replace it with scaffold material and check the quality of bone that will grow into the scaffold. (From frogs) we want to go to mammals, like pigs, and eventually humans."

Jasiuk started her academic career at Michigan State, investigating materials that had applications in the auto industry. She became interested in biological materials and applications while at Georgia Tech. She came to Illinois in 2006 with plans to increase that area of her research thanks to the collaboration possibilities here and to facilities such as the Beckman Institute.

Jasiuk said her theoretical work on micro-mechanics and nanocomposites also applies to biology, which made her shift in research focus while at Georgia Tech easier. While there, she also started doing more computational modeling that allowed her to study more closely topics such as fracture and damage in composites with random microstructures and looking at issues like boundary conditions effects on composites at different scales. Nanocomposites usually bring to mind different artificial materials brought together at the molecular scale. For Jasiuk, studying the skeletal structure of vertebrates offers just as much promise for advancing technology as any exotic polymer.

"Biological materials are also composites; in fact bone is a nanocomposite," she said. "Bone is really a great material: it's stiff and light, it's an ideal material for most engineering applications."

By concentrating on the properties of bone, Jasiuk's work has produced insights that benefit the medical, scientific, and engineering fields.

"I'm not trying to suggest that cars and planes be made with bone, but it has great characteristics for structural materials," she said. "So engineers can learn from this material and use this knowledge to create synthetic materials. By studying structure from nanoscale to macro scale, one can learn what the factors are that contribute to these great properties bone has like high strength and light weight."

Jasiuk gave an example of how computer modeling of bone could aid in the fight against bone diseases like osteoporosis or for diagnosis of disease. In one project aimed at finding the underlying mechanism that causes osteoporosis, Jasiuk was able to successfully characterize at both the microscale and nanoscale the physical structure of normal bone and osteoporotic bone.

"There is no cure for osteoporosis so the sooner it's diagnosed and treated the better," she said. "The idea here is that if we model bone and characterize bone, more work can be done in this area.

"Another big area is using nondestructive methods to assess bone in a person. It's one thing to take a piece of bone and put it under a microscope, but for medical applications we need to be able to look at the patient and obtain data from them without invasive treatment. Combining information from existing methods such as MRI with my models, we can make predictions of properties and determine whether it is diseased bone or healthy bone. That can also help to assess the effectiveness of drugs or medications used to treat bone diseases."

Jasiuk also has a project with fellow Mechanical Science and Engineering professor John Dantzig studying the effects of solid and fluid phases of bone for bone remodeling toward understanding the changes brought about by implants and osteoporosis.

"Bone is constantly changing, so we are looking at bone adaptations," Jasiuk said. "How bone changes due to applied load. This has many, many applications."

One possible application would be to help astronauts retain bone mass during long-term space flights, such as a mission to Mars that would take three years.

"Basically the question is what type of exercises are optimal for bone health, such as for astronauts in space, what types of exercise regimens should they follow," Jasiuk said. "Astronauts in space lose in a year about 20 percent of their bone mass. So if they go to Mars for three years there would be very little bone left."

Jasiuk's still has projects that involve only artificial materials. Her research into nanocomposites is beneficial for the design of future micro-electromechanical (MEMS) and nano-electromechanical (MEMS) devices, which due to their size have nanoscale microstructures. Materials with nanoscale structures have different properties than those with microscale structures. Jasiuk said that by understanding issues such as the different properties found at the nanoscale and the microscale, NEMS or MEMS devices can be designed to be safer and more reliable.

Jasiuk's research will soon be enhanced with the addition to the Beckman Institute of a new nanotomography (nano-CT) instrument that performs complex 3-D imaging at a scale that has been previously unattainable. Jasiuk was one of the investigators on the grant proposal that secured the nearly $2M unit.

"I'm very excited about this equipment," Jasiuk said. "I saw it for the first time at the World Biomechanics Conference. It can give resolution much better than micro CT. For example, in my research on bone remodeling, fluids play a very big role. Fluids in bone are present at different scales, including very, very small channels. Knowing the distribution of these channels will be very helpful in doing modeling.

"Also for nanocomposites it will help to understand materials properties. I would say good progress has been made in this area but there are still many, many open issues. The most open issue is what's happening at nanoscale. This (nano CT) would help with that."

In many ways Jasiuk is still in the beginning phases of her new research path, especially since she has been at the University of Illinois for a short time. The opportunity to explore these new research lines is why she is here.

"I came here because of all the centers and expertise in different departments and across colleges, and all the possibilities for collaboration, and the facilities," Jasiuk said. "I was looking for a cross-section or interaction between engineers and scientists and those from the medical fields. I'm excited to be part of Beckman and part of UIUC and developing new collaborations and getting involved in new projects."