Fracturing bones — and traditional views of civil engineering – ASU News Now

When most people think of civil engineering, images of construction sites, bridges and tunnels will likely come to mind. However, a recent collaboration between Arizona State University and Mayo Clinic is placing civil engineers in a new light.
“There is a huge world out there where engineers can use their skills in areas that are traditionally not associated with civil engineering,” says Subramaniam “Subby” Rajan, a civil engineering professor in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU.
Putting that concept to the test, Rajan has spearheaded a number of projects in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, part of the Fulton Schools, with private companies such as Honeywell and Raytheon and government organizations such as the Federal Aviation Administration and NASA. He has aided in the materials testing of everything from jet engines to bulletproof vests —  efforts that have not only expanded his knowledge of civil engineering, but also that of his students and research assistants who get to participate in the studies as well.
“If you ask a person on the street or even a practicing civil engineer whether civil engineering skills can be used in answering questions dealing with bone fractures, the answer will inevitably be ‘no’; there is not a connection between the two. However, there are a lot of connections,” Rajan says.
In his latest research project, Rajan is using his civil engineering expertise to help forensic researchers draw more accurate conclusions about the impact of trauma made on the human body.

Video by Steve Filmer/ASU Media Relations
Subramaniam “Subby” Rajan
With a long track record of applying civil engineering mechanics to diverse research projects, Rajan was contacted by researchers at Mayo Clinic in Arizona. The team is actively working on a project that could redefine the process for identifying trauma made to human remains. More specifically, the research could allow forensic anthropologists to determine the time at which blunt-force trauma may have occurred to a human body with greater precision and, ultimately, if the trauma played a role in a person’s death.
“This work is important to forensic scientists because knowing whether a fracture occurred perimortem — at or around the time of death — versus postmortem can give us important information about the cause and manner of death with crime scene investigations,” says Natalie Langley, a consultant in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at Mayo Clinic in Arizona and president of the American Board of Forensic Anthropology.
The collaborative team at Mayo Clinic also includes researchers from the Center for Regenerative Medicine in Arizona, the Biomaterials and Histomorphometry Core Laboratory at Mayo Clinic Rochester, Mayo Clinic postdoctoral research fellow Jessica Skinner and ASU’s Barrett, The Honors College graduate intern Yuktha Shanavas.
Langley explains that femur bones are sourced from males between the ages of 50 and 80 who donated their bodies to scientific research. Those demographic variables were chosen to control for sex- and age-related compositional differences in bone. The bones are then heated at controlled temperature and humidity for varying amounts of time to simulate the loss of elasticity that bones experience during the postmortem interval.
“Bone is an elastic material, and it maintains elasticity for some time after death,” Langley says. “By heating the bone, we are able to replicate longer periods of time after death that commonly lead to a bone losing some elasticity, leaving different fracture patterns than if it were broken while still elastic.”
A layer of spray paint is also applied to the surface of the bones so high-speed cameras can detect deformation and surface strain that occur during the impact testing.
Donated femur bones are coated in a black-and-white speckled spray paint that allows high-speed cameras to capture the deformations on the surface of the sample during fracture testing. Photo by Monica Williams/ASU
Langley says her team needed help minimizing the unknowns in their research.
“I contacted ASU initially because we needed an impact tester to induce fractures in a controlled manner,” she says.
Rajan’s team and Mayo Clinic researchers created a special apparatus to hold a fragment of femur bone to allow for an impactor to drop at a controlled and monitored rate.
“These are impacts that are strong enough to break a bone, but they are not as high velocity as a gunshot wound,” Langley says. “We even take it one step further and use high-speed photography to measure, or track, the movement of the bone during the fracture process.”
This allows her team to consider what forces are being distributed across the bone.
Once the bone is fractured, it is handed back over to Langley and her team for a thorough review and documentation of the fracture characteristics.
“One of the things we look at is the pattern of the fracture,” Langley says. “Fractures that occur at or around the time of death have a certain appearance; and those that occur much longer after death, when the bone is not as elastic, have a different appearance.”
“We captured 5,000 frames per second and were able to tell where the weight struck the bone and where the cracks were propagating in the bone,” says Ashutosh Maurya, a graduate research associate who volunteered to participate in the bone testing.
Maurya is completing his doctorate in civil, sustainable and environmental engineering in the Fulton Schools. Despite the bone testing research having a different focus from his dissertation work, he felt it was a great opportunity to expand his skills as he explores impact dynamics problems connected to aircraft structures.
“If you look at almost any research, you will see people from different areas working together,” Maurya says. “This will definitely help me in my future career as I collaborate with non-engineering background professionals and manage projects across disciplines.”
Ashutosh Maurya, a doctoral student of civil, sustainable and environmental engineering, volunteered to participate in the collaboration with Mayo Clinic in hopes of expanding his experience working with individuals in different research fields. Photo by Monica Williams/ASU
It is a philosophy Maurya’s mentor Rajan has tried to instill in all of the students that pass through his classroom.
“It’s only when you start looking at the fundamental tools that are used across all these different problems, that you find there are a lot of commonalities,” Rajan says. “For this specific project, we are able to make an impact beyond what is commonly expected of civil engineers.”
In the coming months, Langley and her team will be compiling data from the fracture testing, tracking formations and markings left in the bones at different intervals of drying. The results will then be used to create a new standard for determining when trauma was inflicted on a crime victim.
“Working with Rajan and his team allowed us to think outside of the box of our own work,” Langley says. “Their knowledge in controlling the variables with forcefully creating fractures gives validity to our work, ultimately changing the process for solving crimes and giving closure to families.”
Top photo: Natalie Langley, a consultant in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at Mayo Clinic in Arizona, applies fingerprint powder to a fractured bone to help see fracture surface markings left by an impact. These markings are then documented to help create a new set of criteria for determining the timing of fracture events (e.g., perimortem versus postmortem). Photo by Monica Williams/ASU
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As a 19-year-old traveling alone for the first time to Europe, Alyssa Cortez felt a combination of excitement and trepidation when she went to Wales as a participant in the summer 2022 Fulbright Commission U.K. Summer Institute (FUKSI).But fear turned to pride when she made it to her destination after a long and tiring journey from Phoenix.Cortez, an Arizona State University sophomore from from Gl…
As a 19-year-old traveling alone for the first time to Europe, Alyssa Cortez felt a combination of excitement and trepidation when she went to Wales as a participant in the summer 2022 Fulbright Commission U.K. Summer Institute (FUKSI).
But fear turned to pride when she made it to her destination after a long and tiring journey from Phoenix. ASU student Alyssa Cortez smiles for a selfie against a backdrop of a green field, rolling hills and a blue sky with white clouds. Alyssa Cortez, an ASU sophomore business major and Barrett Honors College student, studied in Wales as a 2022 Fulbright UK Summer Institute participant in July. Download Full Image
Cortez, an Arizona State University sophomore from from Glendale, Arizona, spent three weeks this past summer as a United States FUKSI participant in the Farming and Agriculture in Wales Summer Institute at Aberystwyth University.
“When I found out I was selected to participate in the FUKSI program, I couldn’t process it until I was on my way to Wales on a plane for 13 hours. When I got there, I was anxious, overwhelmed with disbelief and excitement. The idea that I could achieve something at such a young age, barely turning 19 days before I left, made me feel proud of my abilities, work ethic and passion for sustainability,” said Cortez, a business major and student in Barrett, The Honors College at ASU.
“I was lucky enough to find a program that aligned with the career goal that I had planned at that time. It meant even more to me being from a low-income family that sometimes works paycheck to paycheck. My parents were proud of me.” 
The U.S.-U.K. Fulbright Commission U.K. Summer Institutes are made possible through donations from private individuals and a Study Abroad Engagement Grant from USA Study Abroad within the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, U.S. Department of State, and partnerships with some of the top U.K. institutions.
Institute costs covered by the Fulbright Commission and its partner institutions include round-trip airfare, tuition and fees at the host institution, accommodations and, in some cases, a small daily meal allowance.
Students have the opportunity to study with leading academics and professionals, develop knowledge in specific fields, experience cultural and social events, visit U.K. cultural sites and receive academic credit to transfer to their home institutions.
The cultural and academic program Cortez participated in focuses on contemporary issues in farming and agriculture in Wales, including sustainable food production and land use. U.S. students study at Aberystwyth University’s Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS), internationally recognized for its research into global challenges such as food security, bioenergy and sustainability, and climate change. It is also home to the National Plant Phenomics Centre and the BEACON Centre of Excellence for Biorefining. The summer institute provides students with comprehensive knowledge of land-use and agricultural production systems focusing on livestock agriculture, arable land use and conservation. 
Cortez studied sustainability and the culture that surrounds agriculture in Wales. Specifically, she researched the preservation of lamb farms in Wales and their production methods. She also visited several agricultural operations to learn how botany and business are intertwined.
“My favorite visit was when we were taken to a garden used for the low-income community in Wales and heard the stories of how it has helped those who have gone down a wrong path in life, and how gardening helps them to rejuvenate their psyche,” she said.
Cortez entered the program thinking she wanted to focus on agriculture and possibly pursue a degree in it, but her eyes were opened to an interest in sustainability and business.
“My experience in FUKSI informed my studies at ASU by allowing me to create a larger vision for my future. I previously thought that I wanted to go into agriculture. The program made me realize that I was more passionate about sustainability and business than the plant side of research,” said Cortez, who hopes to lead her own solar energy-related business in the future.
“FUKSI helped me achieve my goals by allowing me to travel the world while getting hands-on experience in the fields I am interested in. It was an absolute pleasure to be a part of an experience like this, and it made me grateful for my opportunities and my ability to have self-discovery,” she said.
FUKSI also sparked Cortez’s passion for traveling, even though her parents thought she should save international travel for her senior year. 
“I proved to them that I could be on my own in a completely new government, which allows me to open the door to travel in the future for my goal to go international with my business if it is a success.”
Since the inception of the FUKSI program in 2010, ASU has led the U.S. in the total number of recipients, with 22. The program is offered to first- and second-year college students who have limited previous travel experience, and those who wish to apply can receive guidance from the Office of National Scholarships Advisement throughout the process. Information sessions will be offered in late January, followed by group workshops and individual advising. To stay informed about upcoming events and workshops, prospective applicants are encourage to subscribe to the ONSA Weekly Bulletin.
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