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Thoughts on Integration of Biomechanics and Applied Mechanics

MichelleLOyen's picture

Biomechanics is a reasonably well-developed field of study, with a modern history usually linked to the pioneering work of Prof. Y.C. Fung in the 1960s. There are a number of dedicated biomechanics journals (including but not limited to the Journal of Biomechanics and the Journal of Biomechanical Engineering). The field is well-enough established to have several generations of researchers working on the subject at universities across the world. Historically there has been a strong link between biomechanics researchers and clinical medicine practitioners. Recently there has been a sharp increase in interest in the subject (i.e. biomechanics) by applied mechanicians who did not come from a "classic" biomechanics background or training. This is good for everyone who works in biomechanics and good for the subject in general. However, the concern that arises in my mind is the accidental development of two independent literatures on the subject--one dominated by applied mechanics journals and one associated with the traditional biomechanics community and emphasizing Medline-indexed journals. It is potentially concerning that there will be the potential for poor integration between the two sets of papers and thus potential for wheel-reinvention. I don't know how to solve this problem, but it is my hope that by developing an active community online (including iMechanica) there will be good communication and collaboration between these two diverse groups, who are quite likely to attack the same problems with very different approaches.


This type of issue needs to be addressed, but is common to almost all interdisciplinary fields due to the separation of people in different meetings, journals, etc. There are a number of approaches that can be taken to try to bridge the two fields though such as the creation of journals and meetings that would bring the two fields together. This is starting to be accomplished by a number of people, but it will take time and effort. One important point to add to this discussion is the introduction of work from both sides that might not meet the standards of what the other side has been doing. Unfortunately coming from the engineering side, we have been seeing more and more of work that could be potentially damaging lately. While getting in to a new field is exciting, to publish and/or present work before one knows the other field well can actually damage the entire interdisciplinary field (i.e. there have been some recent articles in "cellular mechanics" from people in the traditional mechanics field that are being read by cell biologist and likely because of not being familiar with the intricacies in cell research, the biologists may now think that most engineers working in the field think in a very simplistic manner). What is the cross-over point though, I don't know, but it is important to be aware of this. This is an exciting field and galvanizing people to work in this field is essential (this is why we moved into the field over a decade ago (cellular and molecular mechanics, that is). I believe that it will continue to be an exciting area for a long time and that the engineering community will become a greater contributor to exciting breakthrough here as well. Thanks again for the great post.

Xi Chen's picture

I agree that while the interdisciplinary research is exciting, sometimes the research in the biology field is tricky. Very often, people who have received training in solid mechanics (like me) tend to overly simplify things via modeling, whereas most biologists do not like to neglect any details -- it is more like a different culture. At this stage, I guess it may be important for us to be "accepted" by the conventional biologists first, by publishing in their journals -- this kind of mutual acquaintance takes some time. Whenever available, we could work with biologists to co-edit/publish special interdisciplinary issues in biomechanics.

MichelleLOyen's picture

I love your comment here that it is a different culture. I agree! But it's not impenetrable. I found that it took me a few months to understand what was going on when I joined a cellular and molecular biology journal club, but it was only a few months. I also found that the biologists I encountered were very approachable and willing to answer my (what must have seemed to them as) silly questions over coffee, and that by sitting down one-on-one they also were willing to ask me questions about mechanics that they might not have been willing to ask in a more public forum. I guess this is the beauty and the curse of interdisciplinary research. It can take a lot of time, especially at first, but can be extremely rewarding.

Zhigang Suo's picture

Can you give a link to the biology journal club?  Perhaps we can learn how they run it.

MichelleLOyen's picture

This was a "live, in person" J-club in the University of Minnesota about 7 years ago, so no link available!  Extremely low-tech; we used to distribute the papers as hard copy by University mail!  However, I can answer any questions you have about how we did things to the best of my recollection.

MichelleLOyen's picture

Thanks for your comments. I could not agree more with the central point here. The work done by mechanics people on biological subjects may not meet basic levels of understanding and expertise that the biologists already have, and vice versa. I've been frustrated at times when talking to mechanicians who write off what biologists do simply because it involves fewer equations and apparently less quantitative work. (I actually disagree that this is the case--the techniques are different but the logical process to make scientific progress is not fundamentally different than in any other field--but it's a pervasive stereotype!)

A model in which a high-impact interdisciplinary journal was formed, for which each paper had to be considered by specialists in two different fields, is probably a bit of a dream but I'll continue to have that dream!

In the meantime I guess one way forward is by more sharing of completed manuscripts with experts in several fields BEFORE review (instead of at the "in press") stage, although in the current competitive market it can be tough to do this. Another way forward is better identification of qualified reviewers for papers independent of the fact that the reviewers are likely to give less fawning reviews. However, it takes a commitment to encourage reviewers to tackle papers outside their subject area and at the moment the literature has grown so fast that it's hard to keep up.

Konstantin Volokh's picture

Hi All,

Let me add a couple of thoughts to your interesting discussion.

Should a mechanician working in Biomechanics become a biologist? No! This is impossible and unnecessary. The interaction is really needed. Engineers usually understand the necessity of interaction. I cannot say the same about biologists. A biologist working on mechanics of the cell offered me a list of books on biology to read before he is able to consider me as a possible collaborator. Surprisingly, he did not ask me for a list of books on mechanics though his publications clearly indicated that he needed a good training in mechanics (this is why I wanted to take the mechanics part in his biomechanics research). May be my example is a kind of extreme but what I am trying to say is that engineers should not try to become bad biologists and the biologists should not invent new and poor mechanics. They should complement each other in a patient interaction.

Mechanicians working in Biomechanics need a journal, say, "Mechanics of Biomaterials", where a wide spectrum of theoretical/modeling questions will be discussed at the high level of modern mechanics. The existing journals incorporating the word Biomechanics in their titles are usually restrictive in their requirements to submissions and they do not serve, in my opinion, as a general forum on biological mechanics.

Best regards,


MichelleLOyen's picture

I agree completely with your point. We must develop good relationships between biologists and mechanicians. I believe that the language and vocabulary are sufficiently different to require study on the part of both parties to faciliate communications. So I do believe that we mechanicians should study biology but not become biologists, and vice versa. I have fortunately encountered biologists (and both medical and veterinary clinicians) who were interested in doing so and have made excellent collaborators.

I also agree wholeheartedly that there is a current lack of appropriate journal for high quality mechanics work on biological materials. (Traditionally "biomaterials" is a word used amongst my colleagues for engineering materials that are implanted in the body, and not natural materials.) Aside from a few recent and proposed focus issues, I know of no appropriate venue for this work and would enthusiastically endorse such an effort, especially if it helped unite these interesting and complementary fields.

Xi Chen's picture


I fully agree with you that during the interdisciplinary research, we mechanicians could use our strength to complement the biologists, and we do not need to become biologists. For funding, however, especially if we wish to get something from NIH as a PI, I am afraid we need to think and behave more like a biologist, because that field has been well-dominated by the conventional biologists who would show no mercy on people who do not fit well into their "culture". I think all the issues raised by this series of discussion are important and we need to find a balance point.


MichelleLOyen's picture

I believe it is important to note that the NIH mission has to do with healthcare and clinical practice, which have roots in basic biological sciences but a more applied focus.

There are interesting mechanics applications in both basic biology and in clinical medicine but the NIH funding stream is historically associated with the latter.

Michael S. Sacks's picture

I am new to this discussion group but have been working in Biomechanics since I was a lowly undergrad. I have seen the field translate from rather simplistic approaches to extemely sophisticated approaches. Michelle Oyen is correct about the NIH. However, there are plenty of collaborations Traditionaly trained engineers can do. The best bet is to become a collaborator of an established group, then build up a track record. The main issue is to realize that one has to devote much time to this and it cannot be "just another of my mechanics research areas." Biological and medical science is just way to complex to be treated in this way. And (lets face it), most of the "easy" stuff has been done. We now need real progress in theories, experimental, and computational approaches.

Regarding the need for a journal for "biological materials" work - there already is one - The Journal of Biomechancal Engineering. As of July 2007 I will become the new Editor and will be looking for ways to expand the Journal. Special issues will be highlighted, so if you guys are looking for a good venue - this is the one.


Michael S. Sacks, Ph.D.
W.K. Whiteford Professor
Department of Bioengineering

Konstantin Volokh's picture

I am grateful to Michael Sacks for raising the issue of "devotion" to biomechanics. I read a lot on biomechanics and I do not find that the exclusive devotion of some authors to biomechanics has improved the quality of their work from the mechanics viewpoint. The devoted biomechanicians tried and succeeded to create a biomechanics community which is somewhat isolated from the general mechanics community. There is an advantage in such positioning, of course, concerning grants, publications, promotion etc. I think, however, that in the longterm perspective there is a disadvantage in the isolation because it leads to the deterioration of the quality of research. After the end of the cold war a lot of the classical mechanicians turned to the bio stuff and they should be attracted and not repulsed by the existing biomechanics community.

Michael S. Sacks's picture

In general, Biomechanics as a field is moving very much towards mechanobiology. I think approaches like multi-scale approaches towards modeling, etc. can really help move the field along. I think the key feature is that Mechanics has to serve to elucidate an aspect of biological function, it cannot exist by itself, and that this functional aspect has to be presented in such a way that the larger Biomedical community can understand.

I think the major issue here is that Biomechanics as a field has a very different culture than other traditional mechanics fields, largely fueled by its link to NIH funding. So, as I said before traditionally trained Mechanicians can provide tremendous contributions but have to learn the culture too in order to be relevant to the field in general. This should not be viewed as a barrier but as an opportunity to cross disciplines.

MichelleLOyen's picture

I do agree that biomechanics can be perceived as having its own unique culture, although I also agree that the field is changing rapidly and this many not be the case for much longer.  

Just as in the discussion about how much biology or medicine a mechanics person must learn before entering into a fruitful collaboration, a similar point can likely be made about mechanicians and biomechanics experts entering into collaborative relationships.  The best results will come about if we don't expect either to fully learn the intricacies of each others' culture, but instead to meet in the middle.   

This type of understanding is especially important in terms of the publications--better integration of the literature will help both sides.  That said, this is also the area where the "culture differences" can be particularly problematic.  It is up to us as a community to try to encourage progress by interacting more across the "cultural" divide.

Konstantin Volokh's picture

Well, mechanics is mechanics whether it is bio- or whatever else. I retire from further argument.

The problem of the cultural difference between engineers and medical doctors is deep. The reason for that is natural - the medical profession is very conservative (and it should be!) while the engineering field is very innovative and dynamic. We should try to bridge these opposite trends if that is possible in principle.

Concerning the NIH funding, Xi, it is probably practical to have a couple of MDs on your proposal.

I believe the disparity between mechanician and biologist will become extinct. I say this because I notice a growing number of graduate students who are being trained for this interface. I like to consider myself one of them; a student who is comfortable studying mechanics that any mechanician would call respectable and studying biology in a way that any biologist would call respectable. This is the best way, learning mechanics from real mechanician and biology from real biologists. This has imparted on me the perspective of each field and also each's frustrations with the other. Though I am happy to have a graduate program flexible enough for this sort of interdisciplinarity, I have an underlying worry that to study both necessarily means neglecting the nuances of each. Perhaps this worry is useful to keep around.


HCHan's picture

It's a very intesting discussion about mechanics and Biomechanics. I think there is no simple answer to how much should a mecchanician get into the "bio-" circles. If one just needs to explory an extra application for one's theories or models in living organs, the easy way is to find good collaborators. However, if one want to make a career in addressing a "bio-" or medical problem, it is necessay to dive in and try to become an expert on the topic. Professor YC Fung is a best example of a Mechanician who becomes Biomechanician. He became the expert on both the mechanical and biological/medical aspects of the problems he studied. He was even elected as a senior member of the National Institute of Medicine in 1991.

David Taylor's picture

You folks may be interested to know that we've just started a new journal which is trying to sit on this particular fence - beween mechanics and biology. It's called the Journal of the Mechanical Behavior of Biomedical Materials (JMBBM). We are trying to have papers reviewed by both mechanicians and biologists - any work on the mechanical properties of biological materials or biomaterials is welcome. This will only succeed if people from both sides of this research community use it - we hope for the best!

MichelleLOyen's picture

I posted the details and website link for this new "Journal of the Mechanical Behavior of Biomedical Materials" here on iMech just a few weeks ago; the previous post is here.

I'm glad to hear that part of the intent with this journal is to include significant cross-over in the different interested communities--best wishes for the journal's success.

Is it intended that the journal will be Medline-indexed? That seems to be very important to some parts of the community (more classical, clinically-oriented biomechanics) and at least somewhat less important to other parts of the mechanics community. I suspect part of the lack of integration of the literature comes about because of this divide in Medline prioritization. I wish there was a single mechanism for searching both Medline and the Engineering indexes for biomechanics papers. Right now I almost always run the same searches in both places. If anyone knows of a better way to do this please let me know!

David Taylor's picture

Yes, the new journal will be Medline indexed. As regards searching the literature, I find that SCOPUS covers my needs pretty well now, for both mechanics and medical journals. It doesn't find everything but it doesn't seem to miss any of the serious journals.

Dean Eastbury's picture

As Publisher of JMBBM ( I confirm that we will have the journal indexed by Medline. The earliest this can be is early 2009 since Medline insist on at least four issues being published before they take up any new publication

MichelleLOyen's picture

Engineers and mechanicians interested in medical problems will find interesting this recent commentary from Nature Immunology concerned with medical training for non-clinicians working on medical problems. The article details a recently-developed course at Stanford called "Introduction to Medicine" that introduces scientists and engineers to many aspects of a single disease, in this case study, diabetes mellitus. Following the course, students had increased knowledge of the disease, but perhaps more importantly the course resulted in several provisional patents for course projects! This is an interesting model for considering the teaching of medicine within non-medical PhD programs.

(Many thanks to author R. Busch--now in Cambridge--for drawing this to my attention!)

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