In the journal Advanced Materials, a team of Cornell engineers recently published findings related to their development of a new lightweight and stretchable material that may improve the creation of prosthetic body parts, artificial organs, and soft robots, an emerging field of engineering focused on the development of more flexible, less rigid machines capable of complex motion that more closely resembles natural movement. In the paper, the authors described their design and study of a “fluidic elastomer actuator” capable of pumping fluid with pressure. Making this artificial pump out of an “elastomer foam” and shaping it like a heart, the researchers demonstrated that their pump behaves in ways comparable to a biological heart and may have advantages over earlier kinds of heart assistive devices.
The publication is also the first time graduate student Benjamin Mac Murray has served as first author on a manuscript, a key landmark for any early-career researcher. Mr. Mac Murray is a graduate student in the laboratory of Robert Shepherd, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Cornell University-Ithaca. Before joining Prof. Shepherd’s lab, he earned his bachelor of science in materials engineering at Iowa State University and worked for a few years at a small firm doing materials research in Dayton, OH. “Soft machines were new to me,” Mr. Mac Murray said. “It was Cornell and Prof. Shepherd who exposed me to this field.”
“Putting out the paper was good,” Mr. Mac Murray continued. “It was closure, in a way. Within that paper were four or five main experiments, each of which was a great milestone to achieve. Now starting with those milestones, we hope to move on to the next thing.” For Mr. Mac Murray, one of those next things is an award as a TL1 trainee in the CTSC’s Clinical and Translational Education Program, where he will be mentored by Prof. Shepherd and James K. Min, MD, of Weill Cornell Medicine (WCM)’s Department of Radiology.
“The paper was largely written from an engineer’s perspective,” he explained. “Now we need to be talking to physicians and experts from other fields.” He credits Prof. Shepherd, who had a connection with Weill Cornell through Dr. Min, for suggesting he apply for the TL1. As part of his TL1 training, Mr. Mac Murray will work to improve the design and development of ventricular assist devices using this material. Mr. Mac Murray also looks forward to using his time at WCM to meet new potential collaborators who may help advance his research group’s translation of this novel material into medical devices.
Mr. Mac Murray recognized the importance of different mentors, from undergraduate through industry and into graduate school, along his path to becoming a researcher, especially thanking Prof. Shepherd, who, according to Mr. Mac Murray, cautions his lab members to avoid “tunnel vision” when working on research problems and encourages them to “always keep an open mind; always be willing to try something new.” Although one of the more junior people in his lab, Mr. Mac Murray looks forward to being a mentor himself in the future and helping new students succeed.
He is also interested in the chemistry of materials and hopes to explore areas such as self-healing or biodegrading materials, some day, and perhaps join industry in the future. “I’m excited by the use of nontraditional materials,” he said, “Of learning new ways to use them to solve problems.”
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