Featured Story

BYU Professor Brings PE Perspective to One Very Critical Kind of Infrastructure

From the Fall 2020 edition of PE magazine.

NSPE member Anton Bowden, P.E.Many professional engineers specialize in structures such as bridges, marine vessels, aircraft structures, tunnels, and others that help us get where we’re going and do what we need to do. The specialty of NSPE member Anton Bowden, P.E., is a structure that does the same but is completely different: the spine.

Bowden loves to simply look at the spine. “It’s just an incredibly complex system that is dynamic,” he says. “It has engineering constraints on it that are just incredible.”

While a knee is a single-joint system and a shoulder is a ball-and-socket joint, the spine has 33 independent vertebrae and each has three joints, explains the mechanical engineering professor and director of Brigham Young University’s Applied Biomechanics Engineering Laboratory. It’s a passive system surrounded by a series of tethers, spinal ligaments, that passively guide, control, and constrain movement. And it’s acted upon by hundreds of muscle elements that are attached to the spine.

Spine illustration“If I were in charge of the engineering assignment of designing a spine—it has to bear over half of your body weight, it has to constrain and protect the second most important neurological structure in the body—I think I would design something like a concrete bunker,” he says.

But the spine can elegantly move almost 360 degrees in every direction. Concrete bunkers cannot.

As a mechanical engineering undergraduate at Utah State University, Bowden decided to set out on the bioengineering path after completing a capstone project involving a thermoelectric, battery-driven cooling pad for a patient’s knee after a total knee replacement. That change led to a PhD in bioengineering from the University of Utah, with a focus on finite element analysis using data from medical imaging such as MRIs and CTs. Then, he was off to Philadelphia for four years in the biomechanics practice of the international consulting firm Exponent.

The firm had just received a large contract to build a spine model, and Bowden was asked to build and validate it. As he started learning more about the spine, he realized it was an area he could make a difference. “It just opened my eyes,” he says.

At Exponent, he also spent a lot of time analyzing other people’s designs, and he saw “a lot of crazy devices coming to market.” Instead of leaving the work to others, he decided, “I want to spend my own imagination doing that.”

Today at BYU, Bowden is leading a project to develop a wearable nanocomposite sensor system for diagnosing mechanical sources of low back pain and guiding rehabilitation. The work is funded by a $2.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health and could help in the fight against the misuse of opioids, which are often prescribed for chronic pain.

The engineering problem behind the project, Bowden explains, lies in the way medical professionals attempt to solve nonspecific low back pain, which makes up 90% of back surgeries. The diagnosis is based on static images of the patient’s back that are captured as the patient lies down in the position that hurts least. Surgery is often the proposed solution, but patient satisfaction rates are low compare to total hip replacement, which is about 98%, and total knee replacement, which is around 87%. With a patient satisfaction rate of about 53%, “spine surgery is a flip of the coin,” he says.

Working with BYU mechanical engineering professor David Fullwood and Ulrike Mitchell, associate professor in BYU’s College of Life Sciences’ Exercise Sciences department, Bowden is testing a new approach. By putting sensors on the skin of the lower back, the researchers can measure the kinematics of the underlying vertebrae and spinal column. With this new dynamic information—how the spine is actually moving and the asymmetries in the way the patient moves—clinicians will have more objective diagnostic information to hopefully guide better treatment.

Professional Obligations

Even though Bowden’s current work doesn’t require the signing and sealing of engineering designs, he’s a strong advocate for the PE license and the professional obligations that go with it. As an undergraduate at Utah State, he thought about becoming a PE one day and was required to take the FE exam during his senior year. But it wasn’t until after earning his doctorate that the advantages of the license became clear.

While working at Exponent, he learned that the PE came with huge career advantages. Only PEs were allowed to serve as the engineer in charge of writing reports as well as testifying in court. After reflecting on how the license would fit his career, Bowden says, “I knew this was something I had to have. I actually feel very passionately that we don’t have nearly enough folks who are licensed.”

To prepare his students for the obligations of the profession, Bowden introduces them to engineering ethics. In a required sophomore-level class on leadership, ethics, and global agility, he asks students to consider: How many people at one time can an unethical doctor harm? One. But what’s the upper limit on an engineer who’s unethical? “It’s practically unlimited,” he says.

The first time Bowden even saw an engineering code of ethics was during his work to become licensed. He wants his students, however, to face ethics questions earlier than he did and assigns them the task of finding an engineering code of ethics they can commit to for their careers.

Bowden also believes in the importance of PEs supporting their profession. He finds many rewards as a volunteer on the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying committee that writes the Mechanical PE exam in machine design and materials. He calls it a great experience and encourages others to do the same. “Take some time,” he says, “give back a little bit.”

How to Avoid Back Pain

As a PE who specializes in the spine, NSPE member Anton Bowden, P.E., fields a lot of questions from friends and neighbors about back pain. Thirty percent of adults have had low back pain during the last three months, he says. “Everybody knows somebody who has back pain.”

What does he recommend?

Move: “It’s really important to move, stretch. Too many people sit still for too much of the day. It’s part of our culture, right? Just moving and stretching. I do that every single day.”

Exercise: Exercises like yoga and tai chi “really are phenomenal” because they individually exercise the 33 functional spinal units. “Too many things make the spine move as a chunk instead of individually. All the nutrition for the discs comes because of movement, so that’s really the key, even when it hurts. Most people get scared when the spine hurts, but it’s actually almost always helpful to just start moving.”

Anton Bowden, P.E.