Molly Townsend receives NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

Molly Townsend, Ph.D. Student in Biomedical Engineering, was awarded the 2013 NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.  Molly’s research, under the mentorship of Professor Sarigul-Klijn in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, will focus on the Effects of Space Flight on the Spine.  For more information, please see the following abstract for the project.


Long Duration Spaceflight Spine Fracture Location

Keywords: gravitational physiology, lumbar spine, compression fracture, bone loss


The cancellation of the Space Transportation System has enabled NASA to focus on leaving low Earth orbit. However, the human body is not yet compatible with long mission durations. When an individual is exposed to microgravity, bone mineral density in the spine will degenerate 12 times faster than that of a postmenopausal woman, resulting in a decrease in bone strength and an increased risk of bone fracture. With NASA looking to explore the Martian surface, the long microgravity and radiation exposure time coupled with the performance of mission tasks under Martian gravity will result in an increased probability of fracture. Therefore, an effective computational model of the spine exposed to microgravity is necessary to describe the fracture loading mechanics.

An Abaqus model has been previously developed using CT scan data for anatomically correct spinal geometry. Widely-accepted material property values were used for the intervertebral discs and the vertebrae. This model, capable of accurately simulating spinal motion and stress distribution, will be utilized to predict the location and severity of vertebral compression fractures. Realistic loading conditions from common mission activities (ex. jumping from a height on two feet, lifting a heavy load, etc.) will be predicted and applied to the spinal model. The results will be compared to widely-accepted bone fracture predictive methods in order to determine the location and severity of vertebral compression fractures. Results will assist NASA mission engineers in planning mission activities that will preserve the health of the astronauts.

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