Dr. Mark Sochor, left, and Tom Fletcher (Photo by Tom Cogill, for UVA Engineering)

The University of Virginia’s Center for Engineering in Medicine announced the appointment of Dr. Mark Sochor, associate professor and vice-chair of research for the Department of Emergency Medicine, medical director for the Center for Applied Biomechanics and associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, as the new director of the center. Tom Fletcher, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and computer science, is the new associate director.

The center, in its fourth year, supports innovative research at the engineering-medicine interface. Toward its mission to improve prevention, diagnosis, monitoring and treatment of disease, the center has funded 49 grants involving 115 faculty from 36 departments and divisions across the University.

“The center provides a vehicle for engineering faculty and students to engage in high-impact, collaborative research with our health colleagues across Grounds and drive innovation in medically-relevant areas,” said Susan Barker, associate dean of research at UVA Engineering. “The center is also preparing a new generation of engineers and clinicians to think and work across disciplines. With the experience, dedication and vision Mark and Tom bring to their new roles, the center will continue to cultivate engineering-medicine collaborations and produce more transformational medical advancements.”

Sochor, formerly the center’s associate director, succeeds Jeff Holmes, who was appointed dean of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Engineering in March. As the new director, Sochor will focus on creating more partnerships, fellowships, and outreach between the UVA schools of engineering and medicine, and will use his experience in both fields to match clinicians with engineers for specific center projects.  He has been associate director of the Center for Engineering in Medicine since its inception three years ago.

Sochor has had the unique professional opportunity to straddle two highly technical fields. He started his career as a biomechanical safety engineer with manufacturing giants General Motors, IBM and Chrysler. Before he was an engineer, a class in tissue biomechanics with the late professor Robert Hubbard — known for inventing life-saving safety equipment for racecar drivers — as an engineering undergraduate student illustrated how engineering could interface with the art of medicine; this experience would become the inspiration for medical school and launch Sochor’s dual career.

After completing medical training, he became a member of a transdisciplinary engineering and medicine team when he joined the Crash Injury Research and Engineering Network Group sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“The experience of training engineers in medical lexicon and anatomy solidified my belief in team science,” Sochor said.

“Now, as an active emergency medicine physician at UVA, I have worked with very talented engineers, including systems engineers, biomechanical engineers, computer scientists and more, most likely because of my past work experience as an engineer and my understanding of the engineering culture. I have had the privilege of my own early engineering and medicine research collaborations turn into lasting professional relationships. When I was originally approached to be the associate director for the center with Jeff Holmes, it was the opportunity that I was looking for — to help provide engineering introductions to UVA clinicians, something I already found rewarding from my own experience.

“It’s exciting to take my commitment to the center’s mission to the next level as director. I’ve seen the center break down barriers between engineers and medical professionals and get these talented faculty and students working together. In all aspects, the program has been a great success, but what I believe to be the heart of that success is the close, embedded interplay between the clinicians and the engineers working together on a prototype, solving a clinical problem, or improving the patient experience,” Sochor said.

In his new role, Fletcher will focus on carrying forward the center’s unique collaboration model, called embedding, which helps engineers, clinicians and students learn how to bridge the engineering and medical worlds to solve complex health care problems. This includes conducting workshops about co-locating in labs and cross-discipline research techniques, advising students about career development and sharing his experience as one of the center’s recent faculty fellows.

“I’m a huge fan of the center. My faculty fellowship was such a great experience, I wanted to do more. I think it’s important for there to be leadership on both the medical side and the engineering side to make this work, and I’m ready to step up to make sure we continue to have these types of collaboration opportunities,” Fletcher said. “It’s imperative that we have a way to facilitate these connections because it’s not easy. Everyone’s busy, we speak different languages. We need a process.

“I also know through my own research that engineers interested in medical research need strong partnerships with clinicians to get the funding we need to make impactful progress.”

Fletcher has been a big believer in pairing engineering with medicine since graduate school. “In grad school I was completely enamored with math, but it was so abstract. I decided I wanted to do something more tangible that could contribute to society, so I focused on computer science. Then I did a campus visit to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where the computer science department was analyzing medical images — with tons of math. That was my ’Aha!’ moment when something really clicked. I realized I could have everything I wanted in one package, and I’ve been doing image analysis for medical projects ever since.”

Besides his recently completed fellowship with the center, which focused on neuroimage analysis for tremor patients, Fletcher has developed image analysis techniques to help researchers understand autism spectrum disorder and Alzheimer’s disease. He is currently launching a project with the UVA School of Medicine using the same tools he created for assessing tremor patients to help develop treatments for cancer patients who have chronic pain.

“Engineering in Medicine has been a stellar and productive program since its inception, with innovative transdisciplinary projects that would not have been done without the center, to include robust mentoring.  We look forward to seeing results from the science and the new collaborations for years to come,” said Margaret A. Shupnik, senior associate dean for research and Gerald D. Aurbach Professor of Endocrinology at the UVA School of Medicine.