Amy Lerner

Students benefit from her ‘roundabout’ career path

Thanks to a “roundabout” career path, Amy Lerner can draw on a wealth of experiences to inspire her biomedical engineering students as they do senior design projects at the University of Rochester.

For example, she can tell her students how a glove coating she designed as an undergraduate was later adopted by the NASA space program.

And even if her students don’t succeed, she’ll remind them that failure can be the best learning experience of all. “Good design comes from good failures,” she says. “We believe in Edison’s philosophy: I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways it won’t work.”

When Lerner, an associate professor, was elected a fellow of the AIMBE (American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering) in 2019, the citation mentioned her outstanding contributions to engineering design education.

But it also cited her outstanding contributions to orthopaedic biomechanics and to diversity in engineering and academia.

That is an indication of the many ways Lerner has made a difference while serving the Hajim School, the University, and her field.

Early interest in making things

Lerner had plenty of encouragement to be an engineer while growing up in Williamsville on the outskirts of Buffalo, NY. Her father, an electrical engineer, worked in radar and communications for Bell Aerospace. Her mother was a former middle school science teacher in nearby Kenmore, NY. “My two sisters and I became her science class,” Lerner says. “We couldn’t go on a hike without identifying all the plants.” She also remembers doing “very hands-on and creative” crafts projects.

So, even at a young age, Lerner was interested in making things. But not the typical kinds of things an electrical or mechanical engineer would build.

Instead, she opted for dual degrees in textile science and apparel design at Cornell University, then took a job with ILC Dover designing spacesuits for NASA.

This involved frequent trips to the Johnson Space Center in Houston where she and her team were presented with a perplexing problem: Shuttle astronauts were returning from missions with gloves showing extreme wear.

The astronauts were practicing how they would eventually help assemble the International Space Station; unbeknownst to Lerner and her team, they were using patches of Velcro – on their tools, on their space suits, and the shuttle itself – so they could attach the tools to something, rather than see them float off when they set them down.

All that contact with Velcro was wearing out the gloves.

Lerner provided the solution. One of her projects as an undergraduate at Cornell involved designing a glove for hunters. “I had made a coating on so it would have a better grip surface,” Lerner says. She suggested this to her NASA team, and it worked. “Basically, we smeared silicone on the surface and used a trowel to scrape off some of the surface in ridges so that it would flex really easily—essentially exactly what I had done it my dorm room at Cornell.”

As satisfying as that was, Lerner was ready to switch gears. She was tired of having to constantly explain what it meant to have degrees in “textile science and apparel design.” As a result of engineering other aspects of the space glove, she became increasingly interested in biomechanics. And she yearned to do something more forward looking than simply fixing problems with existing technology. In other words, the kind of academic research someone with a PhD would do.

She went back to school, earning a BS in mechanical engineering at the University of Delaware, then a PhD at the University of Michigan with a concentration in orthopaedic biomechanics. Following her postdoc at Michigan, she joined the University of Rochester as the first faculty member in what was then a fledgling program in biomedical engineering.

How she’s made a difference

So, getting back to those three areas in which Lerner has made a difference.

Engineering design education. Lerner created and implemented the Department of Biomedical Engineering’s capstone senior design courses, partnering with outside companies and Medical Center clinicians and research laboratories to provide the students with real world problems. The program has become a model for the Hajim School.

She is the founding academic director of the Center for Medical Technology and Innovation, the department’s master’s degree program for students interested in designing medical devices. Here, too, “real-life” applications are paramount; students sit in on operations and other clinical procedures before working in teams to design innovative devices.

She has received the University’s Goergen Award for Teaching Excellence and an award as the Professor of the Year in Engineering Sciences from the Student Association.

Lerner has provided national leadership in design education through BME-IDEA, the Biomedical Engineering Innovation, Design, and Entrepreneurship Alliance.

Computational biomechanics. Lerner’s research lab uses computational modeling to study the biomechanics of the knee, including the role of gender, obesity, ethnicity, activities and meniscal injuries in the development of osteoarthritis.

Using models based on medical imaging techniques such as micro-computed tomography and magnetic resonance imaging, “our goal is to better understand the distribution of forces in the knee joint and how these may be related to risks for the onset or progression of osteoarthritis,” Lerner says.

Her lab also studies the biomechanics of the cornea. For example, Lerner is collaborating with Clerio Vision to investigate the potential biomechanical implications of a new technique that the company would like to commercialize. Developed by scientists at The Institute of Optics and the Flaum Eye Institute, the technique uses femto-second laser pulses to write vision correction into the cornea noninvasively.

Diversity in engineering and academia.Lerner co-chairs an independent Commission on Women and Gender Equity in Academia, which was created in 2017 after a high-profile sexual harassment complaint was filed against the University.

In an initial report, the committee called for increased transparency regarding complaints and how they are resolved, easier access to policies and procedures, and a dedicated center where members of the community can bring their complaints and learn more about the policies and processes involved with filing a claim. The report also highlighted opportunities for improved mentoring, hiring and equitable support for women faculty and students.

The commission received the University’s Presidential Diversity Award for its work in 2018.

Looking for potential in every student

Lerner watched the construction of the Robert B. Goergen Hall of Biomedical Engineering and Optics from the ground up. The building is named after a University alumnus, board member and patron, whose $10 million gift launched the project.

When the building opened in 2007, Lerner brought her parents for a tour.

“My mom saw the Bob Goergen sign. She said, ‘Hmmm, I wonder if he grew up in Kenmore?’ I said ‘I have no idea, but let’s go look at his plaque.’” Sure enough, Robert Goergen had been a student in her mother’s middle school class.

“She remembered the name. She said, ‘He was a nice boy.’ I often think of that when I’m looking out at my students. You never know who’s in the classroom.”

“Professor Lerner’s teaching style and influence on students is unmatched. Her ability to connect with influential external industry partners and integrate lessons learned and guidance into the classroom extended our learning from a purely academic endeavor to a way for us to see how our work could impact the broader world.”

Breana Roides ’08 (‘09M)
Senior manager of global strategic marketing, digital surgery and robotics with Ethicon, Inc.