Dunn brings non-traditional tribology to MechSE
After finishing her master’s degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Florida, new MechSE assistant professor Alison Dunn was looking for a break from engineering. So, rather than take the traditional path to a PhD, she and her husband spent two years in China with the Peace Corps, teaching English to students. While it served as a break from her studies, it solidified her interest in teaching.
"I did a lot of thinking about approaches to teaching, because the Peace Corps volunteers in China not only teach English, but teach critical thinking and teaching methods,"Dunn said. "So I came back to pursue PhD research, and that’s how I came to academia. I don’t get as nervous in front of a class now, because I had 250 Chinese students every semester for two years. I feel like I’m a lot better able to assess if the students are getting what I’m saying, or if I should stop, and feeling the vibe of the classroom as opposed to just lecturing and hoping something hits."
Dunn specializes in what she calls "non-traditional tribology." Where tribology, the study of surfaces moving against each other, is usually associated with manufacturing processes, Dunn is more interested in biological tribology.
"There’s a sort of expanding field now of bio-tribology that studies anything from why people think flower petals are soft and low-friction, to super hydrophobic surfaces in nature that a drop of water won’t stay on, to biomedical devices," Dunn said. "So it’s expanding quite a bit, especially by taking inspiration from nature. It’s really exciting, and it has the potential for really great advances in health care. Any place in the body that has a sliding interface typically has a lot of diseases associated with damage: knees, hips, eyes, they all have a sliding interface. So reducing friction, especially of an implanted material, would really extend the life of implants and cause less damage, less rejection, so it’s pretty exciting."
Dunn’s PhD research, also at the University of Florida, was in the tribology of a contact lens system. The hydrogels of a contact lens are designed to operate against the fragile tissue of the cornea, but also to function under the sliding interface of the eyelid, which opens and closes almost 14,000 times each day. In addition, the lens must interface with air without drying out, interface with tear fluid, and be comfortable for the wearer. Studies to improve contact lens design have mostly focused on wettability, but Dunn is pursuing a more mechanical path.
"If you have a specific contact area on these hydrogel materials, you know the load, and you can apply and test them in shear, then you can design the interface mechanics such that it provides the best lubrication," Dunn said. "You can actually start to engineer it so that the lubrication is designed into the surface of the material. That’s going to help it be low-friction and robust at the same time, reduce the need for additional products, and even reduce contamination or bacterial infections. Having them be comfortable without the additional lubricants could be a huge benefit."
Dunn said she hopes to teach the tribology course ME 472, Introduction to Tribology, as it would be a good opportunity both to teach and to inspire students about the continuously expanding applications of tribology.
"I’m excited about that course because it combines the mechanics of materials that people know and apply that to contact mechanics," Dunn said. "And then there’s also nano-tribology. If you have surfaces sliding against each other, you could think about it on the macro scale, measure forces and displacements, but something different might be happening at the nano scale with the interactions between the atoms, van der Waals forces, and energies of bonding. That will also be a cool topic covered in the tribology course."
Dunn said she was drawn to Illinois by the diversity and academic atmosphere, and looks forward to working with other professors in Engineering.
"I really like large universities with a lot of energy and a lot of viewpoints, students coming from all over the place, and that was one of the things that drew me here," Dunn said. "The energy and the faculty here are really great. People seem to have real depth of knowledge, they’re very thoughtful. So I’m very excited about collaborations here."