Studying with Mechanical Engineering - Muireann Spain

My name is Muireann Spain and I am currently in my final year of my BE in Mechanical Engineering in UCD. During my third year, I had the opportunity to study abroad at the University of California, Berkeley. It was an extremely worthwhile experience both personally and academically, and I was delighted to have the chance to live in the “Sunshine State”!

 Many of the American students were involved in ongoing research projects at UC Berkeley, and international students were also encouraged to take part. My curiosity was piqued as I had never considered extracurricular research, and when I received the email from UCD about the Naughton Research Fellowship at the University of Notre Dame I decided to apply. I was delighted to be selected as a Naughton Fellow for the 10-week internship program.

At this stage, I was unsure of what exactly I wanted to do with my engineering degree. I chose a project in fracture mechanics, as I had just taken a class in this subject at UC Berkeley and I hoped that having prior knowledge would help me to engage more with the project and contribute meaningfully to the research.

At the beginning of June I flew from California to Indiana, and met the other seven Irish Naughton undergraduate researchers, and lived with three of them in a house in South Bend. My workplace was a bustling office of American PhD students and undergraduate researchers who were extremely friendly and welcoming.

My project was entitled “The effect of bisphosphonate treatment on the fracture toughness of cortical bone from canine rib arc-shaped tension specimens”, and I was under the supervision of Professor Ryan K. Roeder. All of the students in my lab were pursuing PhDs in biomedical engineering, and my project was a multidisciplinary mix, applying the principles of mechanics to biomedical specimens. Needless to say the learning curve was steep at the beginning as I hadn’t had any prior exposure to biomedical engineering, but I settled into the project after some extensive reading!

Bisphosphonates, such as alendronate, are widely used clinically to treat bone disorders, primarily osteoporosis. Bisphosphonates are effective in preventing bone fracture by suppressing bone remodelling and preserving bone mass, but atypical femoral fractures in patients after long-term treatment have raised concerns that suppressed remodelling leads to more brittle bone. Many patients have ceased taking osteoporosis medication due to these concerns, and the aim of my project was to determine whether these concerns were founded by testing the fracture toughness of an animal model.

I was supplied with canine rib specimens, and the experimental groups included ribs from dogs treated with saline (control), a clinical dose of alendronate (0.2 mg/kg/day) and a high dose of alendronate (1.0 mg/kg/day), each for a duration of 2 years. I prepared and tested the samples following the protocol laid out in a paper written by one of Professor Roeder’s former students who had conducted similar research on rabbit specimens. Although the research is not yet complete, there were some primary indications that long-term alendronate treatment did slightly reduce bone fracture toughness.

Professor Roeder provided the optimum amount of support, encouraging me to independently solve issues that were within my capabilities, while teaching me to use equipment and software with which I was not acquainted. The opportunity to work in a lab fully equipped with the latest equipment such as micro CT scanners, imaging software, diamond wire saws and sonic baths was incredible. Every Wednesday morning we had a lab meeting, where each student in the lab had to present their weekly progress, and all the other students gave feedback and suggestions. Working in a collaborative environment such as this was extremely enjoyable as well as educational. As I had no prior research experience, the feedback from older students was vital for me to progress with the project.

Throughout the summer I improved my fracture mechanics knowledge along with coding, imaging software and presentation skills. All of these skills have helped me with my modules back at UCD this year. The research experience was invaluable for my thesis project, as I understand how to analytically approach a problem and apply theoretical knowledge obtained from modules in a practical manner.

I would highly encourage students to apply for the Naughton Undergraduate Research Fellowship, as it really gives you the opportunity to apply your engineering knowledge to a concrete problem, as well as the chance to live and travel in the US for the summer. I would like to thank the Naughton Foundation for this invaluable opportunity, as well as all the students in Professor Roeder’s lab for making the summer such an enjoyable experience. I also have UCD to thank for the opportunity to study and work at two highly-ranked institutions. I have made lifelong friends and memories, and my experiences in the US complement my ongoing education in UCD as well as helping me make decisions regarding my future career path.