College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Juan Ren: Using control-based approaches to study nano-bio mechanical properties of cells

Picture of Juan Ren
Picture of Juan Ren
Juan Ren, assistant professor in mechanical engineering.

Assistant professor hopes to use her research in biomedical applications

While Juan Ren was growing up, she was surrounded by a family of teachers who kept a watchful eye over her studies. As she began working on her degree in engineering, she never planned on joining the family tradition in education until she served as a teaching assistant during her PhD program at Rutgers University.

“I found I really liked to communicate and discuss problems with the students, and that made me start thinking I could be a college teacher, too,” she says.

Now, Ren is a new assistant professor in mechanical engineering at Iowa State University. She will be teaching a course in controls and dynamics, which ties back into the fundamentals of her research studies.

“Although the application area of my research is in biomechanical studies, the approach we use is still based on control and dynamics theories,” she says.

Her work focuses on the nano-biomechanical properties and nano-mechanical properties of soft material samples and bio samples. These properties can include physical systems, such as elasticity, thermal components or temperature, as well as kinetics, or the study of forces on a mechanism.

Eventually, Ren indicates she wants to work with nano-controlled approaches to develop nano-devices that build complex bio samples to mimic the biological phenomenon. For example, something she could develop would be a small instrument that can replicate a cell in your body and carry out the functions of the original biological cell.

Before she can get there, though, she has to overcome some challenges, such as accurately modeling soft and biological samples. She also has to work to fill the gap between nano-mechanical properties and biochemical reactions where substances interact to create other substances on a cellular level.

To solve these issues, Ren plans to create a set of criteria to test nano-mechanical properties in order to find a correlation between nano-mechanical property changes and biochemical responses.

Ren’s long-term goals consist of having a biomechanical study center with an atomic force microscope. This microscope will allow her to combine morphology scanning with property mapping of samples. She also wants to have a nanofabrication center to fabricate and manufacture nanostructures and biomedical devices.

Outside of her work, Ren enjoys playing the piano, hiking and riding bicycles with her husband. “I really love Iowa, and I have family here, so I enjoy it very much. The whole family is very happy to be here.”

Ren says she’s looking forward to working with students interested in material properties and biomaterial studies. She also encourages female students to look into her research as well as to try their hands at physics and math, something she fell in love with once she gave it a try.