The Engineer's Impact - Ryan Willing

Your inside look at faculty’s research and its effect on society

In this new Q&A series, we’ll feature Western Engineering faculty members to gain a succinct overview of their research, understand its impact on society, and discover intriguing little-known facts.

Our latest feature is Mechanical and Materials Engineering Assistant Professor and Biomedical Engineering faculty member Ryan Willing.

Willing-Picture.jpgCan you describe your research?

My lab studies human joints, mostly knees. We use a combination of computer simulations and experimental testing with real human joints to better understand healthy joint mechanics (motions and forces) and how injuries, disease, surgical procedures and joint replacement can alter joint behavior. We have state-of-the-art joint motion simulator robots which we are constantly adapting to allow for more physiologically-accurate joint loading. This research requires close collaboration with orthopaedic surgeons, imaging and rehabilitation scientists, most of whom are members of Western’s Bone and Joint Institute.  

How does your research impact society in everyday life?

Staying active and mobile is key to staying healthy. Unfortunately, joint injuries like ligament tears are common amongst active populations. To get patients up and moving again, surgeons can reconstruct torn ligaments, but the joints aren’t quite the same after. This type of joint trauma, or even just natural aging processes, can cause joints to degenerate, resulting in pain and loss of mobility. Helping surgeons better understand joint injuries and the biomechanical effects of their repair efforts can improve surgical outcomes to prevent joint degradation. Badly worn joints can be replaced. Here we help biomedical devices companies evaluate the performance of their implants to improve longevity, and help surgeons understand how decisions relating to implant selection and alignment influence surgical outcomes. Basically, we are all working together to keep your joints working so you can stay active and healthy.

What’s an interesting, little-known fact related to your research?

The robots in my lab can generate nearly 0.5 tons of compression force across a joint, which seems excessive. But the fact is, due to tensions in our muscles which move and stabilize our joints, the loads transmitted through our knees are many times greater than body weight. This can be determined using simple engineering analysis, but has also been directly measured using load sensing knee implants. It’s amazing what our bodies can do.