By  Courtney Clayton
Cori Espelien
Mechanical and aerospace engineering Ph.D. student Cori Espelien won the three-minute Grad Thesis SLAM with her presentation on injury biomechanics. (Contributed photo)

Neck injuries are a serious concern for all people involved in car crashes. Understanding how the human neck responds to impact may help us explain why some people are at increased risk.

Cori Espelien, a mechanical and aerospace engineering Ph.D. student, won the 2024 Grad Thesis SLAM on April 16 with her presentation on neck response during car crashes. Her research reveals the importance of considering muscle and sex differences in collisions, potentially leading to safer rides for females.

Espelien is spearheading a $1.2 million Department of Transportation project under adviser and principal investigator Jason Forman, a research associate professor at the University of Virginia’s Center for Applied Biomechanics. The project, currently in its third year, examines human neck responses in car accidents.

The Grad Thesis SLAM provides UVA doctoral students an opportunity to communicate their research in an engaging and understandable way for the general public. 

But the real challenge was cramming her research on the topic into just 180 seconds.

“My hands were shaking, and my heartrate was high at the start,” Espelien said. “But once I got the first sentence out, muscle memory from rehearsal carried the presentation through, regardless of how nervous I was!”

Mastering the Art

Communicating complex research topics in a matter of minutes is no easy task. In fact, Espelien said condensing her research was the most challenging step in the process.

“Distilling the scope of a dissertation to three minutes means entire sections of our work are not included at all,” she said. “So you have to pick the slivers that are most engaging.”

She also said that translating the jargon of niche fields into accessible language for the public was a “non-trivial” task.

“But it was a necessary exercise to communicate the core theme,” she said.

Espelien used a PowerPoint slide as a visual aid to accompany her presentation. 

The nine final contestants who competed in front of the audience in Alumni Hall were winnowed down from an original group of 18 competitors.

Initial Findings

Experimental data, which researchers use to model crash outcomes and improve safety standards, is lacking for females. Espelien’s work is geared towards closing this gap. 

The neck is full of muscles, so how stiff the neck is or how someone’s head moves in a crash can change based on muscle flexing.

Espelien used experimental testing databases that include volunteer responses and multibody computational models to explore flexed and relaxed muscle scenarios. She found that while female and male neck responses are similar when muscle flexing isn’t taken into consideration, adding this variable suggests there may be differences between male and female responses. 

Factoring in lower crash speeds also shows potential disparities in the data. By running experimental tests and computational simulations at multiple vehicle speeds, Espelien could determine how sensitive neck responses are. 

Though she has the data she needs for her thesis, Espelien still has further analysis and simulation work to complete. The results in her SLAM presentation represented a subset of her data — assessing the full picture of head and neck responses will take time. 

“With our current momentum, I believe there is a genuine and sustainable shift to increased safety for everyone,” Espelien said.

Celebrating Success

Biomedical engineering Ph.D. student Juliana Trujillo also advanced to the final stage of the Grad Thesis SLAM. 

Aleksandra Cwiek (cell biology) won second place and took the Audience Choice Award. Caroline Riedstra (microbiology, immunology and cancer biology) won third. 

The annual event is sponsored by PhD Plus, a UVA-wide program that prepares doctoral students and postdoctoral scholars for future success, and the Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs.

Prior to studying at UVA, Espelien received her B.S. in biomedical engineering from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.

She said she’s glad she competed. Being able to relate quick, clear information can make the difference in whether or not a research project finds support and gets funded. 

"Being able to share my research with general audiences is important to me because the public will always interface with engineering, and engineering will always interface with the public,” she said. “So it's important that there is a functional understanding between the two.”

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