SFU engineering professor Carolyn Sparrey with surrogate spinal cords made in her lab from polymers.

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Future to the back

July 18, 2012
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Mechatronics professor Carolyn Sparrey manipulates a set of vertebrae to show where the spinal cord lies, and then hands the plastic model back to her three-month-old son sitting alertly in her lap. As a new parent, she’s balancing family life with research these days.

“I was frantically going through data on the day my son was born,” Sparrey admits. She had her baby at home. “One of the luxuries of being an academic is the flexibility to combine research with parenting; data are portable and can be analyzed anywhere, anytime—I can play with my data even when I’m cuddling my baby.” Sparrey recently won major CFI and NSERC grants to create the first bioresearch laboratory within SFU’s School of Engineering Science at the Surrey campus, where she studies injury prevention and treatment for people with spinal cord damage. As the first materials-focused researcher within SFU’s Mechatronics Systems Engineering group, she makes synthetic spinal cords from plastic, which minimizes the sacrifice of animals for spinal cord studies.

Sparrey became a researcher almost by accident. She followed an older high school friend to Waterloo, Ontario to study engineering so she could get a job designing cars. But her first undergrad co-op took her to Syncrude in Fort McMurray, where she designed big machines for tar sand extraction. It wasn’t for her, but it introduced her to the world of research.

“Once I got the taste of research, I loved the open-endedness of it, that when you solve something, you generate more questions than you answer. It’s fun,” she says. There’s the freedom to pursue ideas, something that’s not so easy in industry. “In a university environment you go where your curiosity tells you,” says Sparrey, whose research arose from her own experience as a keen but injury-prone athlete. “I wanted to get into medical stuff without becoming a doctor,” she says. An injury is a mechanical event but instead of studying how a steel beam breaks, Sparrey applies mechanical engineering to examine how similar forces damage spinal cords. Dr. Tom Oxland at UBC was an inspiration, supervising her master’s thesis on how spinal cord lesions differ depending on the speed of the injury. Sparrey refined her techniques at UC Berkley, earning a PhD, followed by a post-doctoral fellowship at the UC San Francisco Department of Neurological Surgery, before returning to BC.

At SFU, Sparrey continues to collaborate with colleagues at UCSF validating a synthetic physical model of spinal injury. By casting polymer plastics into life-size models, Sparrey creates surrogate spinal cords, which are loaded into specialized testing equipment that mimics accident conditions. The results are compared with MRI scans from real patients to refine diagnostic methods and improve treatment. During her postdoc, Sparrey worked in accident reconstruction, examining how the spinal cord is damaged during a motor vehicle accident, the main cause of such injuries. Although crash test dummies are full of sensors, they only provide information from the boney vertebral canal rather than from the cord itself. Sparrey hopes her discoveries will enhance crash test dummies and improve safety standards for seat belts.

Sparrey uses a virtual testing environment. “Computerized systems are much easier to replicate and transport,” she says. “A finite element model generates more data at less expense and with more reliability than test animals. Our ultimate goal is to create a human model.”

Although she’s not the only new Engineering Science parent, Sparrey brings a unique perspective as the only woman in the Mechatronics group. For example, during neurology rounds at UCSF she noticed that most of the surgical failures were affecting the female patients. “I mentioned it to doctors, but they hadn’t noticed,” she says. Most research models use the 50th percentile average human male as a model, but gender can make a difference in the mechanics of injury. “Osteoporosis is more of a problem for women and they have lower bone loading reserves, so they are more susceptible to injury,” says Sparrey. “We need to accommodate gender difference in our study design as a step towards the individual rather than the population response.”

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