Thomas Buchanan recognized with UD’s highest faculty honor

When the University of Delaware’s Thomas Buchanan was a young man, he really didn’t want to be a mechanical engineer like his father. It’s a good thing, especially for athletes with injured knees, that he did become a mechanical engineer like his father, just one with a much different focus than military contracts.

“I like to do engineering where I feel like I’m contributing something positive to society, where I feel like I’m helping people’s lives,” Buchanan said. “It’s kind of funny to think that we’re often a product of rebellion.”

Over the last three decades, Buchanan’s research has led his career on a fascinating, winding journey through engineering, medicine, biology and clinical applications that will make a significant difference in the lives of anyone impacted by severe knee injuries. Buchanan is not only an award-winning bioengineering educator and doctor of theoretical and applied mechanics, but also in 2020 earned a master’s degree in applied orthodox theology — a testament to his wide breadth of expertise and professionalism.

“Dr. Buchanan has had a profound impact on the field of biomechanics through his extensive research, teaching and service activities,” said Ajay Prasad, chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “He is a researcher of international distinction with continuous NIH [National Institutes of Health] funding since 1990 for work related to knee biomechanics including post-ACL reconstruction studies, biomechanical modeling of the ACL-deficient knee and neural control of ACL injury as a precursor to osteoarthritis.”

That level of impact, and his passion for spreading his knowledge along the way, has led him to earn some of the most prestigious awards in his field and at the University. On the eve of retirement from a joint professorship in the departments of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering, Buchanan has been awarded UD’s highest faculty honor, the Francis Alison Award. Named after the Rev. Dr. Francis Alison, who in 1743 founded the institution that is now the University of Delaware, the Alison Award annually goes to one faculty member who exemplifies the “the scholar-schoolmaster.”

“Tom is one of our college’s, and now our University’s, best examples of a scholar-schoolmaster,” said Levi Thompson, dean of the College of Engineering. “He is not only known internationally for the impact of his biomechanics research, he also sets a shining example of what it means to be an influential educator. His patience, kindness and attention to individual needs have inspired the many scholars who have worked with him, and our college is stronger for his commitment to the science and the students. My sincere congratulations go to him for this well-deserved honor and for the legacy I know he continues to build.”

From establishing groundbreaking research to serving as department chair and deputy dean to leading renowned rehabilitation and research centers at the University, Buchanan’s work has shown the true impact of interdisciplinary collaboration and inspired future generations of engineers and scientists to pursue real, impactful solutions for everyday people in need.

The esteemed College of Engineering professor also earned the 2022 Borelli Award from the American Society of Biomechanics (ASB), the society’s most prestigious honor named after 17th century Italian mathematician, Giovanni Alfonso Borelli, who is known as the “father of modern biomechanics.” The award “recognizes outstanding career accomplishment,” and is one of the highest honors in biomechanics. He will deliver the Borelli Award talk during ASB’s annual meeting on Aug. 23 and will deliver his inaugural Alison lecture on UD’s campus this fall, at a date to be determined.

“It represents such a strong endorsement of the type of person, scholar, adviser and mentor he’s been over the years,” said Jill Higginson, a professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering and one of Buchanan’s former mentees. “He’s always worn multiple hats, but at the end of the day, he’s just Tom.”

A picture-perfect professor

Buchanan is the epitome of a university professor: Soft-spoken and well-dressed, often wearing a neat hat and tweed jacket, always prepared to thoroughly explain his work to even the most amateur of learners. But he does so not with the cadence of an engineering textbook, but that of an animated storyteller — one who happens to know everything there is to know about knees and anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries.

It’s hard for Higginson to come to terms with the fact that her long-time mentor is retiring, she said. Higginson helped nominate Buchanan for both the Alison and Borelli awards.

As she reached out to his colleagues, former students and collaborators for their notes of support, she had no problem finding more than a dozen people around the world ready to write about the impact he’s had not only on the field, but on their personal and professional lives.

“It was so fun to prepare this nomination and solicit the input of others who highlighted Tom’s many accomplishments,” said Higginson, who was mentored by Buchanan when she was just getting started in her career at UD in 2004. “He’s just exceptional at all the things it takes to be a professor, as well as a good person and role model. Even now, I still defer to him when I have questions about my own trajectory.

“Tom’s really a master at preparing significant and innovative research proposals that ultimately have impact. That’s what I aspire to be able to do.”

Higginson was one of five female principal investigators involved in the NIH Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) program that Buchanan ran for more than a decade — a program that helped Buchanan bring millions in funding to the University. Those PIs were all women in different fields of science and engineering at different stages of their careers who benefited from the interdisciplinary work, support and mentorship offered by Buchanan. His work advocating for inclusion and diversity from the start earned him UD’s E.A. Trabant Award for Women’s Equity in 2008.

“He’s been a leader through his research and everyday activities,” Higginson said, noting that he personalizes each individual’s mentorship. “He inspires me, and many others. He’s what you think a professor should be — and that’s a really high bar.”

As graduate student Kelsey Neal wraps up her fifth year of doctoral studies, she’s preparing to enter medical school with the full blessing and backing of her adviser, Buchanan.

“Tom has been just incredible in the sense that he really encourages us to forge our own path,” she said, noting that the interdisciplinary work underway in Buchanan’s lab is in part what attracted her to UD in the first place. “He’s always there to bounce ideas off of. He doesn’t micromanage us at all, and really allows us to grow as researchers.”

Neal described him as a man of few words, but one who takes the time to truly listen, think and respond in a way that helps students overcome obstacles on their own. When Neal went to him distraught at the beginning of her second year, struggling with her studies, he simply told her the struggle was normal — that doctoral work is supposed to be hard.

“He has made me so much more comfortable with not knowing the answer to things,” she said. “He’s helped me grow as a researcher in that a lot of times experiments don’t work, but you are still able to pull out useful information from those experiences.”

And if Buchanan wasn’t intimately familiar with something a student needed to learn, he would always guide students to available resources that could help, Neal said.

“He has amazing skill as a teacher,” she said. “He teaches us how to fend for ourselves, as opposed to just giving us the answers.”

On top of the technicalities, Neal and many others said, he’s just a genuinely kind and caring person.

“He’s really there for the students, to push them in the direction they want to go, not just to meet his own agenda, which I think is a huge part of who Tom is as a person,” she said. “He wants to see others succeed.”

Collaborating to lift others up

During his nearly 30-year career at UD, Buchanan has worked most closely with Lynn Snyder-Mackler, a physical therapist who is also retiring and leaving a legacy of research that their graduate students must carry on.

Over the last 20 years, Snyder-Mackler said they’ve been each other’s closest collaborators, studying the various techniques of how people recover from ACL injuries. Since many injuries happen at an early age, this interdisciplinary team has been determined to figure out why and what could be changed to prevent or delay a young athlete ending up with osteoarthritis — a painful and debilitating condition that usually comes in someone’s 60s or later — in their mid-30s.

As Buchanan focused on the neuromuscular elements and Snyder-Mackler the more clinical side, they were able to come up with very individualized modeling approaches that have led to the surprising discovery that patients who underload, or avoid using, their knees more are at greater risk of severe long-term impacts. What they found was the opposite of what they originally hypothesized.

“We were dead wrong,” Snyder-Mackler said, explaining that they thought patients who overloaded their knees after injury or surgery would be the ones prone to develop osteoarthritis in a few years. “We have this melding of clinical and applied science, all directed toward solving this vexing clinical problem. It’s hard work. But it’s been great to have our collective lab.”

The work they’ve done has taken years of study and data collection, and more work will be needed to further understand the role cartilage plays, as well as what kind of direct interventions are best to delay or avoid that early-onset osteoarthritis. This work on the most common knee ligament injury, which costs the nation billions of dollars in lost time and expenses for treatment, could lessen a huge burden on society.

“For both of us, our legacy is in those former graduate students of ours who picked up the ball and are running with it,” Snyder-Mackler said. “It’s been fun to actually have a close collaboration like that for all these years.”

It’s not just been this one particular collaboration, or just the former graduate students that Buchanan has influenced, though.

“Prof. Buchanan has been an instrumental leader of collaboration,” said Kristi Kiick, chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering. “His outstanding scholarship and interdisciplinary approach contributed significantly to the growth of biomechanics research on the UD campus, as well as transformative institutional awards from the NIH and other agencies. The Francis Alison and Borelli awards are most deserved recognition for Tom’s contributions as a scholar, strategic thinker, and steady leader.”

One of his crowning achievements was the establishment of the Delaware Rehabilitation Institute, a multidisciplinary institute involving faculty in multiple colleges involved in research, training and clinical care in rehabilitation, said mechanical engineer Prasad. During his time leading the Institute, as well as serving as chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, interim chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, and deputy dean of the College of Engineering, he played a key role in increasing the number of tenured and tenure-track female faculty while also improving the climate for the women studying and teaching at the College.

“He’s a person who sees the value of spreading that knowledge out as much as you can,” Snyder-Mackler said. “He has lots of ideas, but gets them out there and spurs discussion and innovation around how we might approach these vexing problems. That’s incredibly collaborative.”

From brains to elbows to knees to leaving a legacy

Buchanan’s work began in grad school at Northwestern University in Illinois, while working on a thesis about how to stabilize elbow joints. When he finished, he said, he realized the most interesting part wasn’t just the engineering, but how the “little motors that control the elbow joint,” the brain-based science, made all the difference. So he pursued postdoc work in brain sciences and artificial intelligence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

“I always wanted to do medical research but wasn’t quite sure how to go about it. You can’t exactly major in medical research,” Buchanan said. “I was always interested in muscles and how muscles were working.”

Soon, he was hired by his alma mater to do postdoc work there and then secured a faculty position at Northwestern’s Department of Rehabilitation Medicine. His first job as an engineering professor was actually at a medical school.

Seven years later, in 1996, he joined the faculty at UD, where he taught mechanical engineering and biomechanics and movement science, before leading the Center for Biomedical Engineering Research two years later. His aptitude for mechanical engineering and passion for medical biology had led him to the growing field of biomechanics, as he shifted focus from elbows to knees.

From there, he was promoted from associate professor to professor of mechanical engineering, became the department chair in 2004 and then deputy dean of the College of Engineering in 2008. In 2009, he was named the George W. Laird Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and awarded the same prestigious title for the Department of Biomedical Engineering the following year. From 2010 to 2021, he served as institute director of the Delaware Rehabilitation Institute, now known as the Center for Human Research Coordination.

Prior to joining UD, he served as the associate director of the Sensory Motor Performance Program at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and as an assistant professor and research assistant professor at Northwestern University.

Buchanan also is the recipient of numerous other awards, including an Excellence in Mentoring Award from the Perry Initiative, an Innovation in Research Award from the American College of Sports Medicine and an NIH FIRST AWARD, among many others. He is a fellow of ASB, the American College of Sports Medicine, the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. He’s served on dozens of committees and commissions at UD, offering advice, technical guidance and insight into hiring decisions, program development, diversity and inclusion and more.

But, he said, the Alison award was a big surprise, despite his many accolades and accomplishments over the years.

“I thought there was some sort of mistake somewhere,” Buchanan said, noting that the most prestigious award has gone to so many stellar recipients. But that humble, kind nature is exactly what has made Buchanan a wonderful researcher, educator and mentor all of these years.

Buchanan begins a retirement sabbatical this year but will continue submitting proposals and “tinkering around,” he said. Ongoing projects include one that combines robotics and biomechanics to help improve walking in people with coordination problems, largely the result of strokes.

Of all his accomplishments, though, he said one of the greatest privileges of his career over the last few decades at UD has been working with high-quality junior faculty who he’s seen rise through the ranks.

“When I came here, I saw the potential for collaborations,” Buchanan said. “Delaware has been amazing in that regard, with this interdisciplinary collegial atmosphere.”

| Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson | Illustration by Joy Smoker

Dept-ME2022 Francis Alison Award