Erin McGurk, who received a M.S. degree in bioengineering from UCSD in 1986, recalled how Fung, her former teacher, had helped her in her early days while she struggled with a difficult class assignment. McGurk and her fellow students in Fung’s mechanics class were asked to determine the stresses and loads on trusses. “I had no clue as to what I was doing or how to even approach it,” said McGurk, now president and CEO of Mountain View, CA-based PneumRx Inc.
McGurk recently recalled the classroom experience after Fung was recognized for engineering achievement “that significantly improves the human condition.” Fung’s research is credited with forming the bioengineering basis for the entire field of automotive safety design – all automobile crash tests today rely on his fundamental studies about tissue response.
As a UCSD student, McGurk simply knew Fung as a highly regarded professor and author of the textbook in her first mechanics class. One of the initial homework assignments on trusses was a challenge.
Although reluctant at first, McGurk had few other options that to ask for help. “I approached him after class and he said, ‘If you have time, let’s sit down right now.’ I was pretty amazed,” said McGurk, “because he was such a prestigious professor in the department and so busy with research. He took more than two hours to work with me on the whole area and theory of trusses.”
She recalled the surprise tutoring session as personally and professionally significant: “It was a pivotal moment in my career because it was a catalyst to deciding, ‘OK. I think I can do this. I understand it.’ ”
McGurk’s rapidly growing medical device company, PneumRx Inc., was founded in 2004 and is focused on the development and commercialization of innovative products that diagnose lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or emphysema and also treat those diseases with minimally invasive techniques.
Fung is an expert on the mechanical properties of lung tissue. He first became interested in the mechanics of the human body after spending 20 years making significant contributions in aeronautics. In the early 1960s, while still a professor at the California Institute of Technology, he began applying his understanding of mechanical stresses and strains to the study of blood vessels and cells. In 1966, Fung joined UCSD to establish one of the first bioengineering programs in the country and to fully devote himself to studying the mechanical aspects of the body.
Fung explained his insights and models in numerous papers and in the classic, enduring reference, Biomechanics: Mechanical Properties of Living Tissue (Springer Verlag, 1981), which is credited with improving vehicle design and crash safety. Fung's research has also been used to develop products that protect against explosive compressions, such as personal body armor for military forces and emergency responders.
“One of the things that I think is marvelous and interesting about biomechanical engineering is you need a thorough understanding of materials and design, as well as the mechanics of devices and parts of the body,” said McGurk. “All of those things are based on the principals that I learned when I was in school and very much on the teachings of doctor Fung.”