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Researcher Spotlight: Dr Mark Thompson

19 Jan, 2015

Dr Mark ThompsonDr Mark Thompson holds an impressive range of titles – he’s an associate professor in engineering science, principal investigator of the Oxford Mechanobiology Group and also a tutor and fellow in engineering science at Wadham College, University of Oxford. He holds a Wellcome Trust Affordable Healthcare in India grant, and is working on bringing down the cost of prosthetic limbs…

What are you working on?

I lead the Oxford Mechanobiology Group. We are engineers who apply mechanical analysis to understand the behaviour of living tissues under the forces that they experience in every day life.

Unlike engineering materials, tissues respond actively to force – for example the bones in tennis players’ serving arms become denser and stronger. The way that cells and tissues respond to mechanical force is fundamental to their healthy function, and abnormal responses are linked to important diseases including asthma, osteoporosis, atherosclerosis, diabetes, stroke, and heart failure.

In my group we use tissue and cell culture laboratory models alongside equipment for mechanical testing and devices for applying mechanical forces, and link these experiments with computer models to understand the link between mechanical forces and biological response in health and disease.

What does your average day involve?

There is no average day! As you can see from my job titles, I have several parallel roles. Leading my research group, writing grants and papers and supervising students takes up much of my time. I also lecture on engineering mechanics, solid mechanics and biomechanics and provide engineering tutorials at Wadham College. I enjoy lecturing as it gives me a chance to perform live demonstrations for example of fracture mechanics of glass or the biomechanics of tendon reflexes.

Why is your work important?

Engineering is the application of technology to change lives. Engineers understand the basic science that underlies new technologies but also see the big picture within which these must work. Engineers are essential for the process of translation of new technology into feasible therapies in the UK and elsewhere. Mechanics is obviously important in rehabilitation of human movement, but mechanobiology is showing that mechanical loads play vital roles in maintaining health at many length scales right down to the sub-cellular level.

Specifically in the project developing affordable prosthetic arms, we are using computational models of the biomechanics of the arm to allow us to explore many different designs. These models also give us ways of measuring how well a person fitted with a prosthetic arm performs a set of tasks. We will manufacture prototypes and collaborate with our clinical colleagues to perform trials in the UK and India.

What do you hope the impact of your work will be?

Purak_in_actionIn the Wellcome funded project we hope to increase access to affordable functional prostheses and enable upper limb amputees in India and elsewhere to return to gainful employment.

Existing affordable prosthetic arms have a high rejection rate, and they are not providing the functionality required for the patient to return to meaningful employment. We are working on reducing weight, increasing speed, and providing a level of force responsive feedback that is comparable to much more costly prostheses.

How did you come to be working on this topic/in this field?

The topic arose from academic exchanges between the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore (IISc), and the University of Oxford facilitated by the UK Government Science and Innovation Network in India. I chose a PhD project in the field of biomechanics thanks to the inspiration of my undergraduate tutor, Prof Brian Bellhouse, who was one of the first engineers to apply fluid dynamics to heart valves.

How has Wellcome funding helped you/your research/your career?

The funding has cemented together my research group with a full-time post-doctoral researcher, enabled us to work on a very exciting high impact project in India and so boosted our international profile.

What’s the most frequently asked question about your work?

“Can a mechanical engineer really help solve medical problems?” then “Biomechanics? I can tell you about this nagging pain in my leg when I run…”

Which question about your work do you most dread – and why?

There are no bad questions!

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

I played Demetrius in a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream travelling with medical aid to refugee camps in the former Yugoslavia.

What keeps you awake at night?

Owls. We recently moved to the countryside.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

“Spend two hours every week staring at a blank wall”. Keeping time in the calendar for creative thinking is essential.

Stephen TimoshenkoThe chain reaction question, posed by our previous spotlit researcher Prof Graham Williams, is this: Who is your favourite scientist, and why?

My favourite scientist (I hope I am allowed a mechanical engineer?) is Stephen Timoshenko, who defined the modern science of engineering mechanics. A Ukrainian immigrant to the US in 1922, he worked eventually at University of Michigan and Stanford.

Early on, while he was working at Westinghouse Electric Corporation, his elegant analysis of stress concentrations around holes upset the Harvard engineer, George Swain, but is now a foundational principle in mechanical analysis. In 1957 the American Society of Mechanical Engineers established a medal named after Stephen Timoshenko – he was its first recipient.

You can find out more about Dr Mark Thompson’s research and his publications on his profile page and the Oxford Mechanobiology Group homepage. For information on other projects we have funded via the Affordable Healthcare in India scheme see our funded projects page.

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