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Rising Star – Sarah Bentil

Sarah Bentil has always been passionate about biomechanics according to her former advisor, Rebecca Dupaix.  Bentil joined the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering’s (MAE) mechanical engineering PhD program in 2008 as a fellowship student and began working on a project to improve the biocompatibility of neural electrode systems using hydrogels. “I immediately recognized the need for this type of work which already aligned nicely with my soft tissue biomechanics research interests,” Bentil said.

Bentil says the mechanical engineering PhD program is where her interest in studying the mechanical behavior of the brain all began.  The neural electrode biocompatibility project had an experimental component.  She conducted rheological experiments on porcine brain tissue samples extracted from each hemisphere and different locations within the brain.  “Characterizing the material response of soft tissue is necessary to solve certain biomedical problems,” Bentil said.  She needed physiologically realistic constitutive models to design biocompatible hydrogel-coated neural electrodes.  The mechanical behavior of the hydrogel should be similar to the brain -- preventing the brain from recognizing the electrode as a foreign object and rejecting the device, thus eliminating the mechanical mismatch between the rigid electrode and soft brain tissue.

“Her research resulted in design guidelines for the thickness and stiffness of gel coatings to reduce this mechanical mismatch,” said Dupaix.  “Sarah was extremely focused on what she wanted to accomplish as a PhD student,” Dupaix noted.  “She was resourceful and creative in tackling whatever obstacles or challenges that came along.”

As it turns out, that resolve has helped Bentil throughout her academic life and most importantly, in her new position as Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Iowa State University of Science and Technology and the William March Scholar in Mechanical Engineering.  “You can’t always control the challenges you face in life,” Bentil said.  “What you can control is your response to those challenges so you can successfully achieve your goals.”

Bentil is teaching her first semester at Iowa State and is director of a new lab, The Bentil Group.  The group’s mission is to develop innovative methods to test soft biological tissue and biomaterials to identify, treat and/or diagnose diseases in soft tissue.  “We mainly focus on the brain and nervous system,” Bentil explained.  Her students are developing and employing noninvasive experimental techniques to characterize the behavior of the brain and other soft materials and conducting computational studies to gain insight into how they relate to various biomedical problems.  “Knowledge gained from our work will be used to improve diagnostic tools used by clinicians and develop countermeasures to mitigate traumatic brain injury,” she said.

As part of the Buckeye family, Bentil says Ohio State will always have a special place in her heart.  “The skills and training that I received at Ohio State prepared me for a career in academia,” Bentil commented.  “I hope to provide the same level of guidance, support and mentorship to my students as I received.”

As an educator Bentil believes her role is to create an environment that optimizes students’ ability to work in teams with individuals from both technical and nontechnical backgrounds.  In her class, students perform exercises that require them to interact with one another.  “The objective of these exercises is to have students solve engineering problems collaboratively and communicate the result,” Bentil noted.  “Having experience working in teams will assist the students both in their personal and professional lives.”