News Release

How Does Your Blood Go from your Toes to your Heart?

San Diego, CA, October 21, 2010 -- If gravity always pulls things down, how does blood go from your toes to your heart? Bioengineering students from the University of California, San Diego will be busy helping kids discover the answer to this question at the USA Science & Engineering Festival Grand Finale Expo, on October 23 and 24, 2010 on the National Mall in Washington, DC.

The bioengineers from the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering designed a make-your-own-blood-valves activity for the occasion. By cutting, folding and taping their way to a paper valve and vessel system, kids get to experience for themselves how the valves inside vessels and the heart outsmart gravity and get blood from the toes back to the heart.


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Bioengineering student Adam Young  is of the co-developers of the project, along with fellow bioengineering Ph.D. students Jessica DeQuach and Angelina Altshuler. More photos and a link to a video on the Jacobs School blog.

“From the scientific side of things, we want the students to see how the valves work, how they prevent backflow of blood, how their heart really controls the delivery of nutrients and oxygen to the body without getting clogged up,” said Adam Young, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Bioengineering at UC San Diego and one of the co-developers of the project, along with fellow bioengineering Ph.D. students Jessica DeQuach and Angelina Altshuler.

“But I think more importantly what we are going after is just getting students excited about the field of bioengineering. It’s a growing field that needs a lot of new minds coming into it, so really we just want to get students excited about bioengineering,” said Young, a member of the Biomaterials & Regenerative Medicine Lab run by Karen Christman in the Department of Bioengineering at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering.

And the first step to getting kids excited is to getting them involved.

“With the paper valves, we are trying to show students how valves are so important, how they only allow blood to go one way,” said Jessica DeQuach a bioengineering Ph.D. student also in the Christman lab. “Our paper valves are shaped like real valves in your heart or in your veins, so they open up when you blow one way, but they will close if you try to blow the other way.”


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The paper valves in action. When bioengineering Ph.D. student Avery Sonnenberg blows in the direction of blood flow, the valves open (see above). But when he blows in the opposite direction, the valves slam shut.  The role the valves play in the flow of blood in the body is one of the concepts the bioengineers are teaching kids. 

For their booth, “Defying Gravity: Blood Flow from Head to Toe,” the bioengineers also assembled a small collection of artificial heart valves – from the Star Edwards ball and cage heart valve, first introduced in 1960, all the way up to modern heart valve replacements made from actual pig heart valves. The heart valves highlight just how fast biomedical devices have improved in the last 50 years, in large part thanks to bioengineers and engineers from other disciplines who applied their knowledge to biomedical issues. The timeline includes a Bjork-Shiley heart valve. The students decided to dedicate their booth to Donald P. Shiley, the noted heart-valve inventor and San Diego philanthropist, because his contributions to the biomedical field left such a strong impression on the Jacobs School bioengineering students.

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Bioengineering Ph.D. student Jessica DeQuach holds a Bjork-Shiley heart valve, part of the heart valve timeline the students created for the USA Science & Engineering Festival. See more photos on the Jacobs School Flickr stream.

At the festival, the students hope to capture the interest of students who just might follow in Shiley’s footsteps.

“We want to show the kids how engineering principles apply to daily life and how it can actually be really fun and exciting. It’s not just math problems all day, it’s designing things that actually help improve lives,” said Young.



Graduate and undergraduate students from the Department of Bioengineering at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering participated in this project, including:

Bioengineering PhD students: Angelina Altshuler, Jessica DeQuach, Avery Sonnenberg, Carolyn Schutt and Adam Young (who is also the president of BEGS, the Bioengineering Graduate Society)

Bioengineering undergraduate students: Akshay Chaudhari, Robert Amezquita and Dina Ibrahim

The students thank their sponsors, including: ResMed, Medtronic, the UCSD Institute of Engineering in Medicine and the UCSD Department of Bioengineering.

The students also expressed special thanks to Dr. John Watson for his support in securing supplies and funding for the trip and overall mentorship, and Steve Lopez, Lisa Dieu from the Department of Bioengineering for their invaluable support.

Media Contacts

Daniel Kane
Jacobs School of Engineering