Understanding the Mechanics: An Interview with Grace O’Connell

This article is part of STEMinism in the Spotlight, a monthly interview series.

I was lucky to meet Grace O’Connell through a research project analyzing differences in audience participation during academic job talks based on gender and race of the presenter. Grace is an associate professor of Mechanical Engineering (ME) at UC Berkeley. Her research primarily focuses on soft tissue biomechanics and tissue regeneration, which has a number of applications, including enhancing our understanding of the intervertebral disc to help guide repair strategies. In addition to her impactful research, she is an excellent teacher and mentor. She serves as the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Faculty Advisor for Mechanical Engineering and also designed the curriculum for the UC Berkeley Course ME 178, Designing for the Human Body.

Amanda Glazer (AG): I want to start by hearing a little bit more about the engineering research that you do. I was talking with my aunt about your research. She has degenerative disc disease, ruptured her L4/L5 vertebrae twice, has bulging discs, and herniated her L5/S1. She was very excited about how your research connects to her health issues. Can you tell me more about what you work on?

Grace O’Connell (GO): I would say most of my research is in understanding the mechanics. The spine experiences very large loads during daily activity, and there’s a lot of patient-to-patient variability, depending on what the disc is made of. A simple example is the amount of water in a disc from one person to another, and even the components like collagen can differ. So, how does that change the mechanical behavior of the joint or tissues? How does it make it more susceptible to failure like your aunt has experienced?

AG: What does the research cycle for that look like? Do you ever get to work with patients and see the implementation of your research?

GO: A lot of my focus has been basic science research. It probably will stay that way, because that’s what I find exciting: understanding why things work the way they do. My research can also be applied to other biological tissues, like tendons and ligaments, which also experience lots of failure in the body. UC Berkeley is not connected to a hospital, which makes it more challenging to perform translational research, but I do collaborate with clinicians at UCSF and UC Davis.

AG: What are some of the specific things you are working on currently?

GO: In your spine, you have a gelatinous nucleus pulposus. It’s jelly-like and it’s shown in red [in the image below]. The annulus is a fiber-reinforced material. When this starts to damage, the gel starts to push through. When it pushes all the way through, you have a herniated disc.

AG: Like my aunt!

GO: Yes! What you might see on the MRI is a bulging disc. The problem is that at the back of your vertebral discs you have the spinal nerves, so when a bulging disc pinches on the spinal nerves, you get lower back pain or leg pain. If you have a herniated disc in the upper spine, you’ll get pain radiating down your arms or upper back. We are trying to understand the failure properties of this tissue (the annulus fibrosus). Because, essentially, it is a breakdown of this tissue that allows this jelly-like tissue to push through.

AG: What is the end goal of your research? To understand what is happening and then try to fix it?

GO: Exactly. The goal of our research is to guide repair strategies. When creating new tissues in the lab, they will need to withstand the same load that the native disc has to. You don’t want to create an annulus repair strategy that will just fail as soon as the person goes to lift up a box.

AG: How far off do you think our understanding of this is?

GO: I don’t think the understanding of the failure properties will take that much longer. I have two PhD students working on it now, so I think in five years when they get their PhDs, we are going to understand a lot more. That understanding will definitely help direct the design. There are two other research groups that I know of that already have pretty good data in animal models, looking at disc repair strategies. I don’t know how far off they are from going into clinical trials, but that would be huge.

AG: Why are you interested in the spine versus any other area?

GO: I’m mainly interested in it as a material that is really dynamic. Dynamic in the sense that the tendons and ligaments you have today are different from the tendons and ligaments you had a few years ago. They could be stronger or weaker depending on your activity level. I did my PhD in spine biomechanics. The field of spine biomechanics is relatively small. People have been doing cartilage research for a very long time, and that’s what I did my postdoc in. That’s why I decided to go into an area where there’s not as many people looking at the issue.

AG: How did you first get into that area? I noticed that you got your BA in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Maryland. It seems like quite a switch from that to what you do now.

GO: It was a big switch. I knew I wanted to switch out of aerospace engineering into bioengineering, because I liked the idea of helping people through my engineering, rather than building more military planes or tracking satellites for NASA. At the time SpaceX didn’t really exist. I grew up on the East Coast, so SpaceX would’ve been a small company that I’d never heard of at the time. Aerospace engineering just didn’t really seem like a long-term career option. The health industry has been growing for a very long time, so that was part of the reason why I wanted to switch. I remember my first year of graduate school being a difficult transition year. There was a lot to pick up on and learn in terms of biology. My PhD advisor actually worked for General Electric (GE) in her former life before going to get her PhD. She was an engineer working on the GE90 engine. This is an engine that’s on a lot of aircraft. We bonded over that, and we had a good rapport from that first meeting. That was helpful.

AG: Did you find that some of the concepts you’d learned in aerospace engineering carried over to bioengineering or was it completely different?

GO: When I was a first-year grad student, it just felt like everything was new and unknown to me. But now that I’ve been doing this for almost 15 years, I can easily see how there are a lot of analogous applications in mechanical engineering. For example, I teach a strength of materials course, a required course in the mechanical engineering curriculum, and the course mainly focuses on the material properties of steel, aluminum, and polymers, but all those concepts are used in my lab and applied to the tissues of the body.

AG: How did you first get interested in engineering?

GO: I didn’t really know about engineering until pretty late in high school. I didn’t have anybody in my family that was an engineer. But I was very fortunate in that one of my teachers in high school created an engineering class. One of my friends told me that it was a great class and that I should take it. It was a popular class, so I had to wait a couple of semesters before I could sign up for it. I took it, and I loved it. I really enjoyed all of the things that we did from computer-aided design to making tongue depressor bridges. At the end of the semester, that teacher told me, “If you’re trying to decide on a major for college, I think you should consider engineering.” It was that comment that made me think, “Ok, well I wasn’t really set on one thing over another, so I’ll try engineering.” I ended up doing aerospace engineering because I was taking flying lessons at the time.

AG: Wow! How did you get into that?

GO: My high school had a requirement for doing a senior project. Most kids volunteered at the hospital, which was right next to our high school, so it was easy enough. I didn’t want to do that, because it seemed boring because everybody was doing it. I don’t really understand how I got the idea of taking flying lessons, but I made a deal with my parents that I would start working so I could pay for the flying lessons, and that’s what I did.

AG: Very cool! Do you think you would have gotten into engineering if it weren’t for what your high school engineering teacher said to you?

GO: It was extremely pivotal to how I got to where I am now. I didn’t really even think about it even though I liked it at the time. I knew I liked math and so accounting seemed like a reasonable career option. At some point someone had said to me, “no, you are really good at math. You don’t have to just do accounting. You can do other things too.”

AG: This is a pretty strong endorsement for how much of a difference things people say to us can make in our life’s choices.

GO: I’ve had a couple of times where instructors have said something to me that stuck in my mind. I had two female professors, one during both my freshman and sophomore years of college, tell me that I was doing well in the class. I was a very quiet student. I sat in the back and didn’t speak, so the fact that they knew who I was surprised me. Their comments were very encouraging to keep pushing through the challenging curriculum.

AG: I noticed that you do quite a few outreach and mentorship activities. Do you feel that’s a result of the impact these types of things have had on you?

GO: It’s really evolved over time. For me, I grew up with my dad always giving back to the community. That’s how I was raised. So when I was a grad student and even a postdoc, I would always volunteer for different STEM-related outreach programs for different underrepresented minorities (URMs). It was always separate from my work. When I started as a faculty member here, it took me a couple of years to better integrate my outreach work with my on-campus work. For example, I was part of the Bay Area professional section of the Society of Women Engineers, but now I’m more focused internally with helping Cal students.

AG: That’s great! What do you do in your role as the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Faculty Advisor?

GO: Traditionally, that person serves on the faculty search committee to make sure that it is a fair process, specifically thinking about how we reach out to and invite people. I am also working with the Student Affairs office to address student feedback from last year’s Town Hall. Parts of our student population have not always felt included in the past, and I would like to work on changing the climate in ME to make it more inclusive and welcoming. Ideally, we will be able to track any improvements by seeing how the Town Hall surveys change over the years.

AG: How is diversity in ME?

GO: At the undergraduate level, about 18 percent are women and probably less than 5 percent of students are from other URM groups.

AG: Do you have any other thoughts on how Engineering can be made more accessible?

GO: Getting students to know about it early on. The College of Engineering has been doing a Girls in Engineering program every summer, and it’s grown quite a bit. Now there’s 120 middle school-aged students that come in every year. There’s a lot of students that come from Oakland, Richmond, and other local areas, which is great. I think they are also working on tracking information to evaluate the impact of the program, such as whether participants in the program choose more math and science classes in high school. It will be even more exciting if five years down the line, one of those students is in my classroom! These things are really difficult to track over time because they’re minors, they change schools, and it’s challenging to get the resources to track these things. But these are the types of things I would like to track within our department as well. You track a freshman until they get to senior year—are there certain parts of our population that are struggling, having a harder time or feeling like there are more challenges for them? If so, what can we do to change the system for everybody so it’s less of a burden for all?

AG: The tracking seems super crucial, so that we can actually have a good idea of what’s happening.

GO: Exactly. If we don’t really know what the problem is, we can’t solve it. I think you even mentioned this in one of our meetings—the idea that if you have people at a baseball game and not all people can see over the fence? You can give someone a boost or you could change the fence. My approach is to change the fence, but we have to figure out what is the problem first.

AG: Yes, what is the fence and how do we take it down?! I think it’s wonderful that you are working on all this and on top of all your research, it’s a lot.

GO: It’s nice that now I can do that work as part of an official title. Because a lot of female and URM professors are asked to do these additional things. It’s hard to say no, because we want to engage with the students and support those students, but that’s not necessarily part of the tenure promotion consideration. A lot of promotions at an R1 [top-tier research] institution are based on what your research looks like, and if you say yes to outreach activities, you’re saying no to working on research during that time.

AG: Do you think the solution to that is taking into account those activities in the tenure review process?

GO: Yes. I think that is something that the Vice Provost Ben Hermalin’s office is looking at—to acknowledge that there are things that faculty are doing and to give them credit, because it is an important part of a well-functioning university. But I think it really depends on the department. For example, the teaching load in ME is one full class per semester, whereas a professor in Molecular and Cell Biology might teach a third of a class per semester because there is a heavier emphasis on their research output. So, it’s hard to have a university-wide blanket system of, say, 40 percent research, 40 percent teaching, 20 percent service credit.

AG: That makes sense. Do you enjoy teaching?

GO: I do. I had a chance to develop this class from scratch (ME 178, Designing for the Human Body). I made it more interactive, because it is difficult for anyone to stay focused through 80 minutes. I teach it in Jacobs Hall, which has 3D printers, an electronics lab … all kinds of things that allow students to build things, which is often the reason that they were attracted to engineering. A lot of our required courses provide students with a strong technical foundation, which is really important. In the technical electives, though, they have a chance to branch out and apply that technical knowledge.

The other exciting thing for me is that I’ve noticed my class has achieved gender parity, which is quite rare for an engineering course. My class is cross-listed between mechanical engineering and bioengineering. It’s mostly juniors and seniors, and so at that point, mechanical engineering students are used to male-dominated engineering spaces.

AG: That’s great. It’s such a concrete difference that you are making.

GO: For that one course, for that one moment in engineering, for their time here, students get to experience a very different environment. Because we are designing for the human body, I give examples of designs that were made without a woman or a person of color in mind and how the design failed because they didn’t test outside of their little box.

AG: What are some examples of that?

GO: There are examples of automatic hand washers not registering darker skin tones because of how the technology uses reflection from LEDs. Darker skin tones absorb more light, while lighter skin tones reflect the light back, triggering the sensor to turn on the faucet. There is a software example, with the Apple health app. When it first came out it did not include a feature for women to track their menstruation cycles, which is very important for women trying to conceive. Having more women on the development team may have helped identify that oversight.

AG: These are such important things that someone who is not a woman or not a person of color may not think of.

GO: Right. It’s difficult to think outside of your own frame of mind. In my class, I try to bring up various examples, so students can practice empathetic engineering.

AG: To wrap up, what’s next for you?

GO: This is my seventh year here and my students at this point get really excited about certain aspects of their research project, so they tend to pull the lab in a different direction, which is really exciting for me. I’m here to support them and make sure they have what they need to be able to do that.

Featured Image: Grace O’Connell

Source: Paul Lee

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