New Faculty Takes Engineering Into Operating Room

By: Liz Daubenmire

Professor Chia-Ying Lin, PhD, the new Dane A. and Mary Louise Miller Endowed Chair in Biomedical Engineering, joins UC from the University of Michigan, bringing his interdisciplinary model for biomedical students.  Professor Lin is one of the 50 total new faculty added to the College of Engineering and Applied Science over the next five years. 

Professor Chia-Ying Lin, PhD

Professor Chia-Ying Lin, PhD

Professor Lin joins the University of Cincinnati with a unique experiential background.  Previously at the University of Michigan, Professor Lin held four positions within the medical school: director of the spine research laboratory; assistant professor of biomedical engineering; assistant professor of orthopedic surgery; and assistant professor of neurosurgery.  He is interdisciplinary at his core.

Lin’s primary appointment at UM was assistant professor of neurosurgery where he helped residents get involved with the research side of medicine.  Lin explains his multiple appointments were “empowering” and gave him great experience in several different areas of study.

It is no surprise then, that Professor Lin would bring with him his expertise in interdisciplinary research.  After completing his undergraduate degree in National Taiwan University, Lin worked at the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery of Mackay Memorial Hospital where he received the unique opportunity to mix medicine and engineering.

Many biomedical engineers design surgical implants and other prosthetics without ever stepping foot in the operating room (OR), limiting their knowledge of how the devices are implanted, integrated and functionalized within the body. 

By observing in the OR at Mackay Hospital, Lin connected the dots between the design processes and logistics of implanting and attaching medical devices. According to Lin, this exposure was priceless, not only aiding in his design process, but also in establishing relationships with the surgeons who use these products every day.

Lin plans to bring this same interdisciplinary model to UC, which he calls the “surgical approach,” allowing engineering students to understand the medical implications of their designs. This collaborating with the College of Medicine and CEAS will only further enhance UC’s renowned medical expertise, as the design-to-implementation stage of surgical interventions and prosthetics becomes seamless.

Spinal cage models

Spinal cage models

In addition to the relationship Lin is strengthening between CEAS and the College of Medicine, he has also made great contributions in the world of spinal cage implants.

Professor Lin currently holds a series of patents containing algorithms (complex formulas) which lay out the structural design of spinal cage implants.

As Professor Lin explains, the prevalent back pain which seems to be effecting more and more individuals is often cause by a slipped disk (of cartilage) or other structural weakening of the lower spine.  When such pain becomes chronic, surgery is most often the answer in easing the discomfort and strengthening the patients back bone. 

Progressions of development: Traditional spinal impant seen on the right, Professor Lin's revolutionart implant on the left

Progressions of development: Traditional spinal impant seen on the right, Professor Lin's revolutionart implant on the left

Traditional implants which are still in use today are made of heavy metal needed to bear the load the lower back typically carries.  These supporting structures have proven successful; however, overtime the metal implant can sink into the surrounding bone.  This can then cause more issues, leaving surgeons back at square one.

The trick with spinal cage implants then becomes finding a material strong enough to support the demands of the lower back, but light enough as to not interfere with the surrounding bone.

Professor Lin and his colleagues at the University of Michigan developed a unique solution to the problem.  Rather than using a heavy material, such as metal, to reinforce the strength of the individual vertebrae, the team formulated what is known as interstructual pattern.  This pattern resembles a compilation of tiny cages, or honeycomb sequence within the structure itself.

By creating lots of reinforcement within the structure, a lighter more flexible material, such as plastic, can bear the same weight as a less complex metallic structure.  This creates a lighter spinal cage implant with similar stiffness to bone, the property that helps prevent the implant submerging into the surrounding bone.

This advancement is huge considering the amount of chronic back pain that plagues our society.  With a more efficient implant, patients can get more out of the one-time fix than previously possible.

Profesor Lin holding new spinal cage implant

Profesor Lin holding new spinal cage implant

In addition to Lin’s interdisciplinary initiatives and three patents, the recently hired UC professor has also acquired over 2.3 million in numerous research grants.

Research grant and proposal writing is a particularly useful skill for professors who are continuously conducting research.  Professor Lin explains the key to raising money lies in the first few years as a faculty member.  Lin explains, “For junior faculty, it is important to find a senior faculty member to act as your mentor.  They often are already in the midst of conducting research which, if it aligns with your research interests, you can aid in their efforts.”  Individuals who have gained a lot of research experience and have been “taught the ways” of grant writing are better suited to raise money for their own initiatives.

He goes on to caution new faculty members to keep their specific research ideas separate from their mentor relationships.  “It is important for everyone to maintain a certain level of independence while still collaborating.”

Professor Lin’s accomplishments both in and outside of the classroom led to his hiring.  The College of Engineering and Applied Science has initiated a cluster hiring plan as part of Provost Beverly Davenport’s strategic hiring plan.  The plan includes hiring 50 new professors in five years, including several who will work in multiple disciplines like Professor Lin. 

As the first round of new hires is already on board, Professor Lin proves the College of Engineering and Applied Science is only furthering its excellence and pushing the boundaries of traditional education while expanding students’ experiences.