Michael Plesniak uses fluid mechanics to help physicians weigh treatment options and simulate surgical procedures.
By Kristen Mitchell
Michael Plesniak, a School of Engineering and Applied Science professor, has been recognized by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers for his contributions to the field of fluids engineering over a period of years.
Dr. Plesniak, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department chair, was awarded the 2017 ASME Fluids Engineering Award and will receive the award at a July conference.
Fluids engineering, a branch of mechanical engineering, is the study of the mechanics of gases and liquids. Dr. Plesniak has extended his expertise in turbulent flows, characterized by chaotic changes in pressure and velocity, to applications in biomedical flows.
Dr. Plesniak is currently studying blood flows in the body and human speech production. There is little awareness of the field outside of engineering, he said, but people experience fluid mechanics every day.
“Fluid flow is all around us, from the weather to transportation systems--airplanes fly because of fluids principles--to things like plumbing systems, pretty much anything you can imagine has flow in it,” he said. “If you think about it, fluid flow makes life possible, from breathing, to the transport of oxygen and nutrients by blood, to elimination of toxins and waste.”
Dr. Plesniak and his research team study the way air interacts with human vocal folds, which makes them vibrate and produce speech-like sounds. The team develops simulations based on complications reported by physicians and clinical speech experts, like growths on the vocal folds, which can impede the motion and make a person sound raspy or hoarse. These growths create a complex flow that changes the typical function of human speech.
Dr. Plesniak has been working with colleagues in the Department of Speech and Hearing Science and the medical school, speech pathologists and surgeons, to strategize best treatments for common procedures like surgical treatment of vocal fold paralysis or removal of growths like polyps.
“We develop models to enable computational simulations of these phenomena without doing experiments,” he said. “[Physicians] can basically perform virtual procedures, virtual surgeries… which they can optimize.”
Dr. Plesniak believes that as technology advances there will be a greater emphasis on individualized medical care. Computer models would be able to analyze a patient’s MRI or CT scan and run simulations on potential treatment options. Then a doctor could analyze those treatment options and determine the best action to take.
“Our work can contribute to personalized medicine, and I think that’s pretty exciting,” he said. “In the next 10 years, we will probably see a lot more of this where the treatment is really tailored to the individual, and our models will help make that possible.”
Dr. Plesniak and his research team are also studying the cardiovascular system to understand secondary flow structures in the arteries and to assess the impact on vascular health and disease progression. Secondary flows in the cardiovascular system occur when blood is going around a bend in an artery or other structure and some liquid moves against the grain.
His team is studying what happens to the blood flow under abnormal conditions when researchers inhibit or enhance the structures designed to transport blood.
David Dolling, dean of SEAS, said the ASME award is a well-deserved recognition of Dr. Plesniak’s contributions to fluid dynamics education and research in turbulent flow physics.
“He and his students have conducted important, wide-ranging foundational studies, everything from addressing gas turbine engine cooling, which is a key challenge in aerospace propulsion, to understanding the core physics of biological flows, particularly cardiovascular flows,” Dr. Dolling said.
Dr. Plesniak has been working in fluids engineering for more than 30 years, but said his recent biomedical work has the most potential to be impactful.
“We’ve worked with physicians, and we’ve seen some of the knowledge we generate and the insight we’ve gained go into helping them treat patients, so that has immediate application, and knowing that it impacts human health provides gratification,” he said. “That’s been pretty exciting.”
Dr. Plesniak will give a plenary lecture on his research when he accepts his ASME award in July.