In an uncommon partnership, but one that is growing in popularity in the medical research field, biomedical engineering alumnus Manuel Salinas ’09, MS ’11, PhD ’14 has joined a team of medical doctors at Harvard Medical School to study the effects of blood flow in the heart.
Since April, Salinas has worked with Dr. Elena Aikawa, a leader in the field of cardiovascular research, and her team at Harvard to study the way blood moves through heart valves. Their goal is to decrease calcification in older patients’ heart valves, a condition that restricts blood flow through the heart and afflicts nearly half of adults over the age of 60.
Salinas uses computer simulations to predict how blood flows through the heart under various conditions, including degrees of calcium build up in heart valves. During his eight years at FIU, he used these computer simulations to study tissue-engineered heart valves, prosthetic scaffolding for heart valves made from stem cells that produce living tissue.
Salinas said his experience as a biomedical engineer particularly interested Aikawa, because she feels engineers are creative and approach research from a different point of view than the doctors on her team.
“He’s bringing his own insights as an engineer to the problem,” said Sharan Ramaswamy, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering and Salinas’ mentor.
Salinas said that he believes a trend is emerging where doctors and engineers team up to conduct medical research. The doctors diagnose the problem, and the engineers find ways to build machines to solve the problem. An example of this within the university is a partnership between Ramaswamy and Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital.
“What I’m hearing is that for grad proposals and grants, the people who authorize grants actually prefer groups that have a good variety of backgrounds—doctors, biologists, engineers and computer scientists,” Salinas said.
During his time at FIU, Salinas earned many accolades, including a National Institutes of Health fellowship in 2010, which funded his research throughout the rest of his master’s and doctoral studies. He published seven papers in academic journals and attended more than 10 national and international conferences to present his research, including the Biomedical Engineering Society Annual Meeting. He was also given the Outstanding Student Award from the College of Engineering and Computing when he graduated with his master’s degree, and then again when he earned his doctorate.
In August of 2014, Salinas began the Computer Simulations Society at FIU, a group founded to meet students’ interest in computer simulation training. In less than a year, the organization has grown to include more than 120 members.
“We try to make students aware of the importance of computer simulations for the future,” said Salinas. “It is predicted that three out of every five industries will be using simulations to do their job and predict their performance.”
Once his time with Aikawa is complete, Salinas said he could see himself starting his own research or teaching at a university.
“I think teaching is very exciting and obviously very demanding,” he said, adding that the push to excel from Ramaswamy, as well as biomedical engineering instructor and advisor Michael Christie, helped him earn the post-doctoral position at Harvard.
“During my stay here at FIU, I’ve really had the best advisors that anyone could ask for,” Salinas said.