Passionate scientist and triathlete

Prof. Dr. Ellen Kuhl simulates the effects of neurodegenerations such as Alzheimer's. With the help of these simulations she wants to explore how such degenerations spread in the brain. (Image: Ellen Kuhl)

Interview with Prof. Dr. Ellen Kuhl, Professor of Mechanical Engineering and, by courtesy, of Bioengineering at Stanford University

Prof. Dr. Ellen Kuhl is a professor of Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University, USA. She received her PhD from the University of Stuttgart in 2000 and her Habilitation from the University of Kaiserslautern in 2004. Her area of expertise is Living Matter Physics, the design of theoretical and computational models to predict the acute and chronic behavior of living structures. For a more detailed CV please go to Stanford Profiles.

Since 2016 Prof. Dr. Kuhl is closely connected to FAU, in particular to the Department of Technical Mechanics. This is reflected in numerous cooperation projects, but also personal friendships. In July 2019, Prof. Dr. Kuhl visited FAU again to give a block seminar and a public lecture. We met her for an interview.

FAU has a great reputation worldwide in theoretical and computational mechanics.

Prof. Dr. Kuhl, what exactly sparked your interest in your field of research?

I have always been fascinated by engineering and science. During my studies, I discovered a passion for mechanics and computation. At Stanford, we have a hospital right on campus, just across the street. When I came to Stanford, all of a sudden, there were a lot of opportunities to use mechanics and computation for really relevant problems. I got the chance to observe one of the best heart surgeons in the world fix the leaking heart valve of a child and I just wanted to be part of this.

What project are you currently working on?

My group has recently become interested in simulating the effects of neurodegeneration, for example, in Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. This is exciting because we can use the same methods and techniques that we have used for decades to model traditional engineering problems. It’s also very important because by the year 2050, the number of people affected by dementia will reach 130 million. That’s three times as many as today. Our simulations can help explain how neurodegeneration spreads across the brain and answer fundamental questions to find ways to slow down or, even better, stop it.

What are the most important results of your research to date?

When I came to Stanford in 2007, we started to simulate diseases of the heart, similar to what we do now for the brain. Just like the brain, the heart only has a very limited capacity to repair itself. That’s why simulations are so important. Five years ago, we made our computer models freely available through what’s now known as the Living Heart Project. The Living Heart Project has now grown to almost 400 participants from research, industry, and medicine from more than 100 organizations and 24 countries. We all work together to develop safe and effective cardiovascular products and translate simulation technology into improved patient care. Being part of this collaborative effort with such an important goal is just amazing.

In 2016, Prof. Dr. Ellen Kuhl one of the prestigious Humboldt Research Awards of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. (Image: Alexander von Humboldt Foundation)

In 2016, you received a Humboldt Research Award and spent some time at FAU, namely at the Chair of Applied Mechanics. Why did you choose FAU for your stay?

FAU has a great reputation worldwide in theoretical and computational mechanics. Professor Steinmann at the Chair of Applied Mechanics has inspired me to work in computational mechanics 25 years ago when I took my first finite element class with him. He has always had an incredible influence on my research, in fact, on my entire career. He has a fresh and very unique perspective on engineering science and education. I simply enjoy collaborating with him and with the many other people I have met through him.

In June 2019, you returned to FAU to teach a block course on “Introduction to Neuromechanics” together with FAU-Professor Silvia Budday and to give a public lecture on “Machine learning in drug development”. How was it to come back to FAU and Erlangen?

Visiting Erlangen is always fun, but this year was really special. By now, we have so many colleagues and friends at FAU. We got to meet many of them during our visit, we continued old collaborations, and initiated many new ones. Teaching in Erlangen is also very unique. The Neuromechanics course had an enrollment of 45 students although it was scheduled as block course. The students in Erlangen are simply phenomenal. It was 32 degrees outside, but they were always engaged and curious to learn. It was really fun to teach the course together with Dr. Budday!

Just like science, triathlon is multidisciplinary and it requires learning from and working with people in different fields. I enjoy this in triathlon as much as I do in science.

Prof. Dr. Ellen Kuhl is not only a passionate scientist, but also a passionate triathlete. (Image: FinisherPix)

In addition to science, you have another passion: triathlon. What does the sport mean to you?

One very memorable thing about our visit was that we had the opportunity to do a short triathlon in Forchheim. We travelled to Erlangen with our race bikes and had the chance to explore the area. Middle Franconia is really beautiful and scenic. We were biking and running along the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal every morning before going to work. It probably sounds crazy, but I usually prepare my classes when I run or swim. For me, it’s a great way to be outside and exercise, and, at the same time, think about the structure of a manuscript, a presentation, or class.

Do you think there are parallels between a scientist and a triathlete?

What I like most about triathlon are long-distance races, half or full Ironman. In those races, it doesn’t help to sprint off the start. The most successful long-distance triathletes know how to pace themselves, don’t give up in the middle of the race, and are always confident that they will finish. Even with the best of all preparations, there are always many unknowns or race day, every race is different, and it is impossible to predict how long it will take to finish. This is very similar to science. And, no triathlete can win a race by being a specialist in only one discipline. Just like science, triathlon is multidisciplinary and it requires learning from and working with people in different fields. I enjoy this in triathlon as much as I do in science.

Thank you for the interview, Prof. Dr. Kuhl!

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