Celebrating Awards of Faculty Excellence

 Five Columbia Mechanical Engineering Professors Win National Honors

Five professors in the Department of Mechanical Engineering have recently received prestigious honors from two preeminent engineering societies, the American Society for Mechanical Engineering (ASME) and the Society of Engineering Sciences (SES). The professors’ contributions to their respective fields exemplify their passion, ingenuity and creative approaches to solving some of the most pressing global, industrial and public health problems of our time:

  • Y. Lawrence Yao is pioneering advanced laser manufacturing technology for renewable energy and biomedicine
  • Sunil Agrawal is integrating robotics with the human body to enhance function and movement in humans across the lifespan
  • Gerard Ateshian is applying novel tissue engineering techniques to develop artificial joint cartilage to revolutionize the treatment of osteoarthritis
  • Kristin Myers is taking an engineer’s approach to the problems of preterm labor and delivery
  • Mary C. Boyce is studying sea creatures to inform the design of novel hybrid material designs

Read on to learn more about their achievements:


Y. Lawrence Yao, Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, received the ASME’s prestigious Milton C. Shaw Manufacturing Research Medalin 2015 for his “scholarly and pioneering work in advanced manufacturing, particularly model-based optimization of transient laser machining process, microscale laser shock peening and anisotropic/heterogeneous material response, process synthesis for the laser forming of doubly curved shapes and autogenous laser brazing of dissimilar metals.”

“Theuse of lasers in manufacturing and materials processing also provides enormous potential benefit to our economy and our quality of life,” said Yao, who directs the Advanced Manufacturing Laboratory. “For instance, the autogenous laser brazing of dissimilar metals provides a critical technology for advanced battery manufacturing. Process synthesis for the laser forming of doubly curved shapes enables weight reduction and therefore energy consumption in automotive and aerospace industries. In biomedicine, we are using laser technology to manufacture high-precision, biocompatible microscopic stents without material property degradations that cause scar tissue, which improves their safety and efficacy.”

“I am extremely honored to receive the Milton C. Shaw Manufacturing Research Medal, named for the pioneer in advanced manufacturing who made a significant contribution to the fundamental aspects of modern manufacturing,” said Yao.


Sunil Agrawal, Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Professor in the Department of Rehabilitative and Regenerative Medicine, received two ASME awards in 2016, the Machine Design Award and the Mechanisms and Robotics Award, for his groundbreaking work in designing novel robotic devices and interfaces to enhance humans’ everyday function.

Dr. Agrawal, who directs the ROAR (Robotics and Rehabilitation) Lab, earned the Machine Design Award for his “seminal contributions to the design of gait training robotic exoskeletons for stroke survivors and pediatric mobile robots for the training of developmentally delayed infants and toddlers.”  “Robotic exoskeletons interface with the human body to improve patients’ gait, balance, movement and daily tasks,” explained Agrawal. “Pediatric mobility robots are used to help infants and toddlers who suffer from mobility impairments due to diseases such as cerebral palsy, spinal muscle atrophy and Down syndrome that affect the infants’ development trajectories. Through well-designed haptic interfaces, we have shown that these children can learn higher-level behaviors such as driving in a cluttered environment and navigation to reach a goal.”

Dr. Agrawal received the Mechanisms and Robotics Award for his lifetime contributions to robotics and mechanisms designs, in both basic science and applied engineering. He has made significant contributions on topics such as cable-driven robots, flapping-wing flying robots and space robots. Most recently, Dr. Agrawal and his ROAR Lab research team developed a robotic training system with a Tethered Pelvic Assist Device (TPAD)to improve posture and walking in children with crouch gait by enhancing their muscle strength and coordination.

“Twenty five years ago, the field of robotics was largely focused on industry and automation,” said Agrawal. “The concept of integrating robotics with the human body to enhance human function is a recent phenomenon. We have now reached the point where the technology can be integrated to make a meaningful difference in peoples’ lives.”

Dr. Agrawal's work continues the proud tradition of the Department of Mechanical Engineering in Machine Design, first established by Professor Ferdinand Freudenstein, who is considered the "father of modern kinematics," and is also a recipient of the ASME Machine Design Award (1972) and the ASME Mechanisms and Robotics Award (1978).

“I am extremely humbled to receive both ASME awards,” said Agrawal. “Some of the former recipients of these awards were my mentors.  It is wonderful to be recognized by my colleagues and peers.”


Gerard Ateshian, Andrew Walz Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Professor of Biomedical Engineering, was awarded the ASME H.R. Lissner Medal in 2017 for his “outstanding contributions to theoretical formulations and experimental investigations of cartilage mechanics and tissue engineering, and for pivotal contributions to the implementation and dissemination of open-source finite element computational tools for the biomechanical analysis of living tissues.”

Ateshian and his research team in the Musculoskeletal Biomechanics Laboratory focus on soft tissue mechanics, and in recent years, cartilage tissue engineering for resurfacing knee, hip, and shoulder joints. “We were the first tissue engineers to account for the fact that human infant cartilage has ten times greater cell density and more vascularity compared to adult cartilage, which spurred the challenge of engineering large cartilage constructs that approach the composition, strength and resilience of native cartilage tissue,” Ateshian explained. “The question of how many nutrient channels were needed to mimic native cartilage is a perfect optimization problem that we are solving with careful experimentation combined with computational tools based on growth and remodeling theories, and optimization methods to maximize nutrient supply.”

Ateshian’s long-term goal is toreplace the entire human osteoarthritic joint surface with an anatomically shaped tissue-engineered cartilage construct. “Next, we are planning animal studies in which we replace entire articular layers with engineered tissue constructs in a large animal’s joint,” he said. “This has never been done before.”

“The crowning achievement would be to make a significant impact on the clinical treatment of osteoarthritis,” he said. “Working toward this goal has been extremely fulfilling. The H.R. Lissner Medal is the most senior level award conferred by the ASME Bioengineering Division, and I am deeply honored that my peer community has acknowledged my work with this award.”


Kristin MyersAssociate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, won the ASME Y.C. Fung Young Investigator Award in 2017 for her “pioneering efforts in maternal and fetal health, resulting in a body of experimental and modeling work that drives the area of reproductive biomechanics and the larger field of soft tissues biomechanics.”

A mechanical engineer with an automotive background, Myers became interested in the material behavior of biological soft tissues, with specific focus on the female reproductive system. In her Soft Tissue Lab, Myers and her research team are investigating the structure-mechanical property relationships in cervical and uterine tissue using rigorous mechanical testing protocols and computational models that capture its biological complexity, with the goal of informing clinical decisions that may help to avert preterm labor and delivery.

“Our team was the first to develop a patient-specific computer model that calculates the mechanical environment of pregnancy,” she said.  “We are working closely with physicians to develop a computational framework that can be truly translational. Our models are built by expanding the current clinical maternal ultrasound to capture the maternal anatomy and generate an anatomical simulation model that could help determine uterine and cervical sufficiency.”

Through these models, Myers hopes to identify the causes of mechanical dysfunction in pregnancy, such as premature cervical shortening, uterine over-distension and preterm labor, and preterm premature rupture of fetal membranes. “Right now we are launching an NIH-funded longitudinal study of low-risk and high-risk singleton pregnancies in which we are modeling the mechanical environment of the mothers’ uterus and cervix and comparing them to birthing outcomes.”

“I am deeply honored to win the Y.C. Fung Young Investigator Award on a professional and a personal level,” said Myers.  “Few women have received this award, and for someone like me who is studying pregnancy and doing traditional mechanical engineering, receiving an award for this unique application is very exciting.”

“I hope to raise the visibility of women’s health and reproductive biomechanics among other young engineers who are interested in biomechanical engineering,” she said.  “There are so many interesting and valid scientific questions at the interface between biology, medicine and mechanics, and at the literal interface between the uterus, placenta and the cervix.”

Mary C. Boyce, Dean of Engineering at The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia University and the Morris A. and Alma Schapiro Professor of Engineering, received the Society of Engineering Sciences’ (SES) Engineering Science Medal in 2015 for her pioneering contributions to the field of materials and mechanics, specifically the development of predictive models of polymer behavior.

Boyce’s research focuses on the multi-scale and nonlinear mechanics of polymers as well as man-made and naturally formed soft composites. Her leadership in the field of mechanics and materials has expanded the understanding of the interplay between micro-geometry and the inherent physical behavior of material, which has led to innovative hybrid material designs that possess novel behavioral properties.

“My work merges the discipline of mechanics and high-level mathematics to predict the behavior of polymer materials,” she said.  “Based on the molecular and microstructure of a material, I am exploring how it will behave under high deformation and in multiple dimensions, including time.”

Recently, Boyce’s focus has shifted to soft composites that combine soft polymer phases with stiffer polymer phases.  “I’m exploring the role of polymer mechanics in soft composites to achieve new behaviors and properties,” she said.  “Much of this work is bio-inspired because many natural materials are soft composites, which can teach us how to design new materials. For instance, sea creatures, from fish to octopus, have unique combinations of soft and stiff materials that achieve different properties that serve to increase the animal’s survival, such as materials that provide protection while giving flexibility.”

For Boyce, studying nature has informed new ways to assemble materials to achieve what is seemingly competing or conflicting properties in order to achieve optimal performance. “We are now using 3D printing to prototype a soft composite material structure,” she said.  “3D printing enables us to print the material microstructure and instruct where to put soft and stiff materials in order to achieve the kind of microstructure that provides unique properties.”

Boyce is honored to receive the SES Engineering Science Medal.  “The highest honor is when your peers recognize you for your achievements,” she said.  “I feel extremely gratified and touched to receive this award.”

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