David Meaney: Engineering Human Health
David Meaney may seem young to be a department chair. As a previous winner of the prestigious Y.C. Fung Young Investigator Award, the chair of Bioengineering is taking this responsibility very seriously. “It’s humbling to have this faith from your colleagues, and honestly a little daunting, because the responsibilities of the chairman are vast: plotting the direction of the department, selecting the types of faculty you’d like to hire, promoting and retaining current faculty, and developing a sense of morale and common good for the direction you’re charting.”
Meaney, who received his master’s in 1988 and Ph.D. in 1991 in bioengineering from Penn, reveals that he was always interested in medical problems and initially considered becoming a doctor. However, during his undergrad work in biomedical engineering at Rensselaer, he realized that “much of my interest was in understanding how these problems occurred in medicine.”
Meaney recognized that he preferred a career in lab work, enjoying the seemingly endless opportunities to investigate the reasons why diseases occur. After gaining his Ph.D., he stayed on at Penn for post doctoral work, and joined the faculty in 1993.
How does Meaney define bioengineering today? “Bioengineering applies engineering principles for either understanding processes that occur in biological systems or to eventually treat or cure problems of human health. The revolutionary change in biology—that field is now populated with tools to actively manipulate rather than only passively observe changes within living tissues—has brought it into the domain of the engineer.”
Meaney’s own research has an enviable depth. Its major focus has been on discovering what’s happening inside a neural cell, mechanically and chemically, as a result of stress to the central nervous system (CNS), and how this knowledge can lead to the treatment of CNS injury.Much of his work is molecular neuroengineering, which he defines as a new field that uses the tools of molecular and cell biology, computational biology and bioengineering to understand how the nervous system works at the single-cell and molecular scale to treat disease—and how cells in the nervous system can adapt dynamically even under normal physiological conditions.
In addition to supporting faculty growth in neuroengineering and biocomplexity, Meaney also places a strong emphasis on adding faculty who can crystallize new efforts in emerging fields within bioengineering that connect to new disciplines across the campus.
Credit: Penn Engineering Magazine, “David Meaney: Engineering Human Health,” by Derek Davis.