Kersh takes road less traveled to MechSE
New MechSE assistant professor Mariana Kersh had a somewhat unconventional start to her mechanical engineering career: after entering college with the intention of becoming a pre-med student, she obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from University of Texas at Austin. And then she worked for almost three years in human resources, developing and editing manuals.
"I eventually decided that HR wasn’t what I wanted to do, so I went back to school," Kersh said. "I thought, ‘Maybe now I’m ready to go back to medical school.’ In order to get a B.S. after my B.A., I basically had to start over. I took a general scattering of science and math, and during that time I was much, much better at the math and physics; they were much easier for me than the biology and chemistry. Then someone told me that engineers can do medical things, too, and that was what interested me in biomechanics. I figured out engineering was a better suit."
After receiving her bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Kersh started her research in biomechanics with a professor there. She planned to work in industry doing applied research, and did co-ops and internships at orthopedics companies during that time. But her professor encouraged her to stay for her master’s degree; then, after receiving an NSF fellowship and being offered an opportunity to do research in Switzerland for 18 months, she decided to see her education through all the way.
"I said, 'Okay! I’ll do my PhD!'" Kersh said. "It was never a straight path. It looks like a straight path on paper, but in my mind, I wasn’t sure. When I was doing my PhD I was still thinking that I might want to go to industry. But the project in Switzerland for the orthopedics company for a year and a half showed me what it’s like doing research in industry. It was exciting, but I learned that the questions you can answer have to lead to a contribution to the bottom line of the company, which can be limiting at times. So that sealed the deal for me. I was starting to develop my own ideas and questions that I thought would be interesting to answer, and that’s when I decided I was going to stay with academia."
Kersh carried out her postdoctoral work in Australia, working on whole-body biomechanics. She did multi-scale modeling to use information at the macro scale, measurements made in vivo, in a model at the joint level to understand hip pathologies associated with osteoporosis. Right now her research includes developing a model of the shoulder, seeking solutions to problems that may arise in rotator cuff surgeries, and she is also continuing her postdoc work by studying how bone changes with diseases such as osteoporosis.
"Biomechanics is interesting because it has both engineering and biological components to it," Kersh said. "There are students who have a natural interest in biology, like myself, but we found that our strengths were elsewhere. I think there are a lot of students that might really be suited to engineering, but they think it’s just airplanes, engines, that kind of thing, and they might not know what else you can do. When you’re teaching three-point bending, the traditional example is a beam. But you could easily put a bone in there and start analyzing how it breaks using the exact same equations, and if you can see that other side of the science then one might be more motivated to consider engineering."
Like many MechSE faculty, Kersh was attracted to the MechSE program by its reputation for being at the forefront of scientific research.
"The resources are incredible here," Kersh said. "And the faculty members are top-notch. I saw the level of work that’s coming out of U of I, and I thought this was a really good community to start working on some basic science questions. The facilities—especially Beckman—were a big draw for me. The imaging facilities that are available here will allow me to start looking at questions that I haven’t been able to look at before."