The Body Mechanic

    The biggest poster in bioengineer Yuan-Cheng Fung’s office is a murky shade of gray, looks like something between a nebula and a slice of honeycomb and nearly covers one of his office walls. It’s a magnified cross-section of a cat’s lung, he explains, pointing out the dots that mark capillaries and veins and the thick arterial channels. He’s had the poster up for 15 years now, and used to use it to teach. Now that it no longer serves that purpose, he’s still more than happy to talk about it – and with more enthusiasm than he does any of the other pictures, awards or books in the room.

    Hydie Cheung/Guardian
    Professor Yuan-Cheng Fung smiles as he recalls the use of a poster of a cat’s lung. Fung, who also studied aeronautics, helped found UCSD’s bioengineering department.

    “”Now, this [seems likes] idle curiosity,”” Fung said, concluding his explanation of the feline lung, “”but in real life you live because of this sort of thing.””

    Fung is a professor emeritus – or retired from teaching – at UCSD’s Jacobs School of Engineering. His life’s work has been dedicated to the sorts of things that allow us to live: tissue engineering and the mechanics of the heart. He is receiving the National Academy of Engineering’s 2007 Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ Prize – a $500,000 award for “”engineering achievement that significantly improves the human condition.””

    The Russ Prize will be awarded to Fung for his continuing research on the effects of mechanical force, mainly in the form of hypertension, on cell tissue. Currently Fung and his co-researchers – including Wei Huang, Peter Chen and several undergraduate lab assistants – are focusing on the remodeling of blood vessel and lung tissue. So the “”idle curiosity”” about the cat’s lung is not quite so idle after all; their current experiments monitor the blood vessels of small animals such as mice and rats. The cells are “”not exactly”” the same, but many of the basic principles are. The application to human biology, and thus to medicine, is not far.

    As a former professor of aeronautics, Fung deals often in basic principles. After earning his bachelor’s degree at China’s Central University in Chungking, Fung worked for China’s Bureau of Aeronautic Research.

    Another set of black-and-white pictures on his office wall shows a faded biplane and a worried-looking young man. The man, Fung said, is his former boss at the bureau, Tsu Wang, aerospace engineer and William E. Boeing’s classmate. In a later meeting with the Boeing-Douglas company in San Diego, Fung was presented with the two framed pictures of Wang and his design as an honor garnered purely by Fung’s prestigious reputation in the field of aeronautics.

    Though his work in aeronautics has been notable, Fung changed the focus of his research when he moved from California Polytechnic – his Ph.D. alma mater – to UCSD in 1965 and was key in the founding of its bioengineering department. Aeronautics and bioengineering may fall on a wide spectrum of application, he believes, but they are grounded in the same rules.

    “”The principle and mechanics are the same,”” he said regarding the two fields. “”Airplanes are designed by mechanics and structure. So are we.””

    The very title of one of his books – “”Selected Works on Biomechanics and Aeroelasticity”” – suggests a closer relationship of principles than one might imagine.

    According to Fung, this is why his research is a subset of the Jacobs School of Engineering and not UCSD’s School of Medicine. While Fung’s work operates on a more fundamental level than medical science itself explores.

    “”Eventually the knowledge from [the Jacobs School of Engineering] will benefit clinical practice,”” Huang said.

    Medicine is concerned with the tried and tested practical applications of these principles – indeed, as a much older discipline than mechanics, much of its knowledge is not integrated with the basic principles of physics that Fung has studied for all of his academic life.

    Bioengineering itself is a relatively new field.

    “”When I started bioengineering, there was no such subject as bioengineering,”” Fung said.

    The time he is referring to is 1965, which casts an even brighter light on how significant a role he played in the discipline’s founding – and how long, exactly, he has played it for. As his colleague and friend Huang puts it, the Russ Prize is being awarded to him not only for this research, but “”for [Fung’s] almost 40- or 50-year contribution to biomedical engineering.””

    Some have called Fung the father of modern biomechanics, for his groundbreaking work in integrating the study of mechanics with that of human biology.

    Fung has also lived and worked through much of UCSD’s own development; he was hired when only Revelle College existed, and watched as each of the following five were built and inducted into the university. Current construction at UCSD doesn’t faze him; he’s seen enough to dwarf the complaints of unsightly cranes and noise pollution.

    The Bioengineering Building – and department as well, though not quite as recently – is a new creation of modern architecture and many windows. Fung’s employment at UCSD long outdates it: A poster on the wall, scattered with signatures, reads “”Reserved for Y.C. Fung #147 – ‘Although parking in the same place has never been your style in life, a reserved parking spot will give us more opportunity to benefit from your wisdom, creativity and leadership.'””

    Fung, now 87 years old, has two adult children (one of whom is also a professor) and a home in La Jolla; his work, he says, is not driven by financial needs. The question of when he will finish his research went unanswered, and may never be.

    “”Other questions come to mind, some of them harder to answer,”” he said. “”You never reach the, ‘Haha, I’m finished now, I can stop’ stage.””

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