Currently, there are seven faculty members with joint appointments in the UK’s College of Medicine’s Department of Surgery. Most of the appointments have a logical relationship with surgery: pediatrics, pharmacy, anesthesiology and radiology. However, there is one joint appointment that, at first glance, doesn’t have a natural association with surgery: mechanical engineering. Dr. Jonathan Wenk, recently appointed to the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Department of Surgery, is bridging the two disciplines by applying engineering concepts to surgical approaches to heart disease.
A joint appointment between the two departments, while rare, is evidence of growing collaboration between the College of Engineering and the College of Medicine. While his teaching responsibilities are fulfilled within the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Dr. Wenk meets with cardiac surgeons, pathologists, radiologists and other doctors specializing in muscle mechanics to better apply computational mechanics to heart disease–the leading cause of death in the United States for men and women according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
While working for an exhaust manufacturer in Detroit as part of a co-operative education assignment for Purdue University, Dr. Wenk obtained a glimpse of where he wanted to take his graduate studies. “During my co-op experience, I got my first look at the finite element method. I was intrigued by the many ways it could be used and wanted to not just be able to use it, but understand everything about it,” he explains.
Dr. Wenk chose the University of California-Berkeley because they were, and continue to be, strong in computational mechanics. There, he immersed himself in the finite element method, applying it to biomedical projects. He devised numerical models of arteries, then, continued with more models of the vascular system. “I’ve always been fascinated by the human body,” Dr. Wenk says. “If the wall of a pipe is deemed too thin, engineers can always thicken it to ensure it doesn’t fail under high pressure; but the pipe itself doesn’t do anything in response to the pressure. In the human body, systems actively respond to stimuli and perform certain actions. For example, if the pressure is too high in your arteries, your body will produce new cells to thicken the wall. As an engineer, I have to recognize that the body itself is an active agent and tap into what it naturally does in order to generate accurate models.”
During his post-doctoral work, Dr. Wenk moved away from the vascular system and began to focus on the heart. “As an engineer, I look at the heart and say, ‘This is a pump. It is taking fluid and circulating it by contracting.’ Using the finite element method, I can approach the heart similar to how I might approach modeling a car or a bridge. The reason is that the heart obeys the laws of physics just like everything else. The basic principles of solid mechanics aren’t any different just because the heart is composed of tissue; therefore, I take fundamental engineering tools and create models that allow us to predict what kinds of surgical treatments will be the most effective,” he says. His hope is that in the near future cardiac patients will receive treatment plans specifically based on computational models of their own heart made possible by imaging data.
In addition to his interesting and exciting research, Dr. Wenk is becoming acclimated to a new state, new university and new job. His wife, Dr. Christine Trinkle, also teaches in the mechanical engineering department, specializing in micro-fluidics and micro-scale design and fabrication. For leisure, he enjoys biking, hiking and camping. “I’m a big outdoors guy. This is a beautiful area and I’m looking forward to visiting a few of central Kentucky’s hiking staples like Red River Gorge and Natural Bridge State Park,” he says. “Plus, I’m glad to be back where there is seasonal change! Coming from the San Francisco Bay area, I’m glad to see fall colors again.”