Molly Townsend, a biomedical engineering graduate student working with Prof. Nesrin Sarigul-Klijn, has received a 3-year NSF Graduate Research Fellowship to support her Ph.D. research. Molly’s project, “Long Duration Spaceflight Spine Fracture Location,” will investigate the effects of prolonged microgravity on the spine biomechanics and injury.

The cancellation of the Space Transportation System has enabled NASA to focus on leaving low Earth orbit. However, the human body is not yet compatible with long mission durations. When an individual is exposed to microgravity, bone mineral density in the spine will degenerate 12 times faster than that of a postmenopausal woman, resulting in a decrease in bone strength and an increased risk of bone fracture. With NASA looking to explore the Martian surface, the long microgravity and radiation exposure time coupled with the performance of mission tasks under Martian gravity will result in an increased probability of fracture. Therefore, an effective computational model of the spine exposed to microgravity is necessary to describe the fracture loading mechanics.

Molly’s project will utilize a model capable of accurately simulating spinal motion and stress distribution to predict the location and severity of vertebral compression fractures. Realistic loading conditions from common mission activities (ex. jumping from a height on two feet, lifting a heavy load, etc.) will be predicted and applied to the spinal model. The results will be compared to widely-accepted bone fracture predictive methods in order to determine the location and severity of vertebral compression fractures. Results will assist NASA mission engineers in planning mission activities that will preserve the health of the astronauts.