The Mechanics of Winning - featuring Anne Simmons and Lauren Kark

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The Mechanics of Winning

By Myles Gough
Click here for the Uniken article

Biomedical engineers led by Professor Anne Simmons have golden ambitions for our Paralympians.

When Australia sends its Paralympians to Brazil in 2016, lower-limb amputees could be moving up the podium thanks to prosthetic limbs and specialised-training regimes optimised by UNSW engineers. The project is a partnership between the Australian Institute of Sport, Dr Lauren Kark from the Graduate School of Biomedical Engineering, and Professor Anne Simmons, head of the School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering. And it’s a perfect example of science helping sport.

For Simmons, who used to play “every sport known to man” and still has a fiery competitive spirit, even in friendly tennis matches, the prospect of helping Australians succeed on the world sporting stage is “exciting”. But Simmons is also acutely aware of just how contentious new technology in sport can be, whether it’s carbon-fibre running blades adding abnormal length to a runner’s stride, or full-length swimsuits leading to recordsmashing times in the pool.

“Perhaps the only way to remove the contention is to address it from a scientific viewpoint,” she says. “This requires an understanding of the mechanics behind the technology and the effects on its user.” Simmons will be exploring ways that engineering and design, through a combination of changes to materials and dimensions, can lead to small but crucial advantages. And along with Kark, a biomechanics expert, she’ll be developing innovative training programs that will isolate and strengthen specific muscles used by lower-limb amputees.

But not all artificial limbs are built to win gold medals. Simmons and Kark previously developed a set of simple walking tests for non-athletes with lowerlimb amputations to determine whether they were getting the best performance from their prosthetic. Simmons’ work has made an enduring impact in the biomedical sector in Australia. With nearly 20 years of industrial experience, she’s been involved with companies such as Nucleus – the holding company for biomedical engineering companies including Cochlear – and has left her mark on medical devices including the vaunted bionic eye, implantable defibrillators and artificial kidneys.

Another research project is looking at the way blood travels through ourveins and arteries. The results could help people on dialysis and provide insights to the medical community around developing more effective stents, the meshed-metallic tubes used to repair blocked blood vessels. For people undergoing dialysis any improvement is welcome. Simmons and Associate Professor Tracie Barber are exploring ways of optimising the angle at which needles are inserted into enlarged veins called fistulas during the process to prevent blood vessel damage.

 

“We’re using our expertise in fluid dynamics to determine scientifically the safest positioning of the needle,” she says. “Because patients can be on dialysis for decades in some cases, you really need to look after these fistulas.”

That Simmons works so closely with doctors in her research is perhaps unsurprising given she was urged towards a career in medicine by her high school teachers and parents. Instead, she opted for the less traditional path of engineering. The decision may have shocked her family, but it spawned a stellar career. This year she was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for significant service to biomedical engineering as an academic and administrator, and in 2012 she was nominated for NSW Woman of the Year for her work raising the profile of women in engineering.

Simmons says UNSW has done an “extraordinary job” recruiting female engineering students. “You don’t have to be knee deep in grease to be an engineer,” she says. “We just have to get over the initial hurdle in their minds, and in their parents’ minds, and show that engineering is an option for women.

This article originally appeared in UNSW Uniken.