Engineering Delivers the Advantage in Protecting Children

A tumble down the stairs, a fall from a bike, a jerked arm or an abusive strike are all actions that can cause traumatic brain injury (TBI) in children. One million children in the United States sustain TBIs annually, sending 165,000 children to the hospital. According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, TBI is one of the leading causes of acquired disability and death in infants and children. It's those horrific outcomes that Susan Margulies, professor of Bioengineering and Neurosurgery, is in the business of preventing.

"I first studied the different types of injuries in children at different ages and under various circumstances as a graduate student. I learned that there are gaps in our understanding of the biomechanics of pediatric injury and children's tolerance to withstand forces of impact. When we become successful at determining the mechanism of injury, we can enhance diagnosis and treatment—an incredibly important goal," Margulies says.

A blow to the head—adult or child—causes movement of the brain. The impact and movement can injure brain cells, nerves and blood vessels, which in turn can negatively affect short- and long-term physical, mental, social and emotional abilities. While it is evident that children's heads are smaller and their tissues are different from adult tissues, Margulies' research shows that a child's physiological response to head trauma is different from that of an adult.

"Susan's work is pivotal for understanding how to treat and prevent devastating injuries in children," says David Meaney, Solomon R. Pollack Professor and Chair of the Department of Bioengineering. "Brain injuries are considered a silent epidemic in our society, and children suffering traumatic brain injuries face a lifetime of recovery. Susan's research will contribute to improving treatments to help the recovery process, and will also establish guidelines on how to protect children from suffering these injuries in the first place."

Much of the work evaluating the causes of injury and developing preventive measures and treatment is a product of Margulies' leadership of the Injury Biomechanics Lab. "This is where we work to understand what happens inside a child's head during rapid rotations and impact," she says.

Margulies and her team employ an integrated experimental approach toward the understanding of pediatric injury: the team uses animal studies, computer modeling and anthropomorphic dolls equipped with sensors to estimate diffuse patterns of strain and injury in infants. Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, her research has implications for the design of protective equipment for children, how health practitioners diagnose and treat children who have suffered TBI, and how social workers and medical professionals distinguish between accidents and violence-related injuries.

"Susan's work is yet another outstanding Penn example of merging engineering with medicine. It is rare for individuals to have the background necessary to attack and solve these types of complex medical problems, and Susan is a model for building a research program with important societal impact," says Meaney.

As seminal as her work is in the protection of children, Margulies sees it simply as a product of good engineering. "As an engineer, I try to use basic discovery and translate that to real-world applications," she says. For Margulies, teaching, mentoring and researching at Penn Engineering deliver exactly what she desires professionally. "I made my choice to come to Penn because I wanted to be part of an excellent bioengineering department associated with a nationally-recognized medical school. I wanted to take part in an environment that cultivated and supported collaboration," she says. "Plus, I wanted to combine the immediate gratifications of teaching with the long-term deep satisfactions of research. For me, every aspect continues to be rewarding."

View the full article in Penn Engineering Magazine: "Engineering Delivers the Advantage in Protecting Children" by Amy Biemiller.

Interested? Learn more!

Susan Margulies' Faculty Profile
Injury Biomechanics Laboratory Website

Return to News Features