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

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When bioengineering Ph.D. student Avery Sonnenberg blows into the paper blood vessel in the direction of blood flow, the valves open (see above). But when he blows in the opposite direction, the valves slam shut, as they do in the human body when blood begins to move in the wrong direction. The role that valves play in blood flow in the human body is one of the concepts the bioengineers are teaching kids at the USA Science & Engineering Festival.

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.

Get the latest updates from the students on the Jacobs School Twitter stream.
“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.

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

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.”

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.

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.


Media Contact: Daniel Kane, (858)534-3262 or [email protected]