Understanding the Mechanics: An Interview with Grace O’Connell

By Amanda Glazer

September 26, 2019

*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](https://oconnell.berkeley.edu/what-we-do/) 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.


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?


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.


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.

Source: [Medical Dictionary](http:// https://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/herniated+disk)


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.


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


**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.


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



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.”


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


**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.


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](http://girlsinengineering.berkeley.edu/) 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.

Source: National Academy of Medicine


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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