Prof. Mow Receives ASME's Highest Honor

Nov 18 2014 | By Holly Evarts | Photo: Eileen Barroso

Van C. Mow, Stanley Dicker Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Orthopaedic Bioengineering, has been awarded the prestigious ASME Medal, established in 1920 by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) to recognize “eminently distinguished engineering achievement.” In bestowing the medal, which is the highest award given by the society, ASME cited Mow’s “significant contributions to biomechanical and biomedical engineering, particularly seminal breakthroughs in understanding the biomechanics of human joints; for educating and mentoring engineering students; for broad and critical leadership of the nascent bioengineering profession; and for service to ASME and other professional societies.”

Van C. Mow

“I am very pleased and happy that I am to receive this award. It is indeed a great honor for me,” says Mow, who was presented with the medal at the 2014 ASME International Mechanical Engineering Congress and Exposition on November 17 in Montreal, Canada.

A member since 1991 of the National Academy of Engineering and of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences since 1998, Mow established Columbia Engineering’s Center for Biomedical Engineering in 1995, the Department of Biomedical Engineering in 2000, and served as chair of the department until 2011. Considered a pioneer in the field of biomechanics and biomedical engineering, he is one of the most productive and well-known bioengineers in the field, having published over 300 full-length peer-reviewed papers and invited monograph chapters, and more than 400 meeting abstracts, while also editing seven books on the subject. His current Google Scholar citation number stands at 31,073, with hi-index of 97.

Also an elected member of Academia Sinica of Taiwan and The World’s Academy of Sciences, Mow served as director of the New York Orthopedic Hospital Research laboratory at Columbia University Medical Center, and as director of the Engineering School’s Liu Ping Laboratory for Functional Tissue Engineering.

Mow earned his BAE in aeronautical engineering (1962) and his MS (1963) and PhD (1966) in applied mechanics from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). Following a one-year postdoctoral fellowship in applied mathematics at NYU’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, he spent two years as a Member of Technical Staff at Bell Labs in New Jersey where he wrote computer programs for the antisubmarine sonar network off the U.S. East Coast. In 1969, he returned to RPI as an associate professor of applied mechanics and engineering science, and began to focus on biomechanics.

“I was seeking new problems to be involved with when I went back to RPI—ones about helping people and not involved in military efforts,” Mow explains. “I found that there really was a cornucopia of challenging and exciting engineering problems in the biology, medicine, and physiology arena, and it was exciting to explore these fields. This was how the nascent field of bioengineering and biomechanics began to form in my mind, emerging as new areas to study; indeed, there was so much to learn.”

Mow concentrated on the musculoskeletal system, where, he says, analyses of forces and motion, and of stresses and strain, are more critical. He developed rigorous constitutive laws that can be universally used for determining the complex deformational behaviors of soft-hydrated-charged tissues—such as articular cartilage, intervertebral discs, and meniscus of the major joints of the mammalian body, including ankles, hips, knees, shoulders, wrists, and intervertebral discs of spines. In 1976-77, he spent a sabbatical year at Harvard Medical School to learn more about the biology, biochemistry, and physiology of such tissues and joints, as well as the patho-physiology of those diseases.

“The medical problems that motivated my studies,” he adds, “stem from the need to understand the etiology of degenerative joint diseases, e.g., osteoarthritis, spinal degenerations, and sports injuries.” 

As the need for more direct interactions between physicians and surgeons increased, Mow joined Columbia Engineering in 1986, becoming the first joint faculty appointment between the Engineering School and Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. Over his career, he has mentored 75 PhD students and PhD-MD research fellows, many of whom have become recognized leaders in the fields of bioengineering and orthopaedic research.  

Mow has had a long and rich history with ASME. A member since 1964, he became a fellow of ASME in 1979, and associate editor of its Journal of Biomechanical Engineering in 1979-83, and chair of its Bioengineering Division in 1984. In 2005, ASME created a named medal to honor his contributions: the Van C. Mow Medal for Outstanding Bioengineers. The medal is given annually to an individual who has demonstrated meritorious contributions to the field of bioengineering through research, education, professional development, leadership in the development of the profession, mentorship to young bioengineers, and with service to the bioengineering community. 

“In 1969, when I returned to RPI from Bell Labs, I had no real idea where the nascent field of bioengineering would take me. I knew that it was risky, since bioengineering as a profession was in its infancy, whereas mechanical engineering by that time was a firmly established classical field with a large number of participants. It did offer me numerous challenges both technically and professionally. It was indeed thrilling to be there at the beginning of an exciting new field, and ASME, as one of the large founding engineering disciplines, gave us bioengineers a wonderful organization to work within!”