Dr. Oliver Röhrle contributes to the excellent standards in the field of biomechanics at the University of Stuttgart. He has held one of the popular junior professorships in the Simulation Technology (SimTech) cluster of excellence since 2008 and has recently received a research prize for his work on the biomechanics of the musculo-skeletal system.
When he started studying business mathematics, Oliver Röhrle did not have the faintest idea that his professional career would take him to several continents and eventually lead him to the life sciences. Röhrle, who was born in Ulm, wanted to study something involving mathematics, which is why he chose business mathematics. “It was a course offered at the University of Ulm that seemed to be really interesting,” said the pragmatic scientist explaining his choice. However, while he was doing his doctorate in the USA, Röhrle found out that “interesting” did not necessarily mean “easy”. But we’ll come back to that later.
A University of Ulm exchange programme enabled Röhrle to do a year of his graduate studies in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. During his stay there, Röhrle focused mainly on numerics, which is mathematics in its purest sense, with no applications in mind. He left the USA with a master’s degree “made in USA” and returned to Germany, as it turned out, just for a few months. Röhrle finished his graduate studies in Ulm and took the next logical step: he applied for traditional business mathematics positions in banks, consulting companies and insurance companies. “I had taken several actuary examinations and would have been able to work as an insurance mathematician,” said Röhrle who, after participating in an assessment centre, soon realised that this was not the right profession for him.
Since Röhrle was very interested in engineering work and numerics, in particular in solving partial differential equations, he decided to opt for a scientific career. However, the German academic system did not make the career change very easy. “I couldn’t go into the field of science directly as I had not attended the required lectures. This, added to the fact that I knew the American system, made me decide to return to the USA,” said Röhrle who based his choice of job on three major criteria: he was looking for an applied mathematics department at a good American university in a nice area. An available position in Boulder, Colorado, fulfilled the three criteria. He spent the first year in Boulder as a teaching assistant, followed by three years as a research assistant and he was awarded his PhD in applied mathematics in 2008.“I have never been under so much pressure again,” said Röhrle laughing as he recalls his doctorate in the USA. He had to teach, attend lectures, prepare for examinations and write his doctoral thesis – all at the same time. “In the USA, doctoral examinations are rather challenging and around 50% of all doctoral students in Colorado fail,” said Röhrle.
His next move to a new city and activity was the result of a mix of coincidence and people he knew: his supervisor, Prof. Stephen McCormick, had a sister who lived in New Zealand, and McCormick frequently travelled out to New Zealand to see her. As a highly committed researcher, McCormick established contacts with the New Zealand scientific community, in particular Prof. Peter Hunter at the renowned Auckland Bioengineering Institute.
Researchers from the Auckland Bioengineering Institute came to visit Boulder, and Röhrle was offered a position as a scientist in Auckland where he would focus on the application of numerics in the field of biomechanics, a field of research that suited him down to the ground. “I did not want to work with standard formats, like those on a dice, for example. Biomechanics is a field where numerics can be nicely applied. It deals with complex, multiscale models,” explained Röhrle.Funded by a biomechanical research grant, Röhrle worked on tooth and jaw mechanics, an area that gave him a lot of freedom to define his own research niche. “In the initial phase of my work, I also dealt with bones. But I soon found that the work on soft tissue was more exciting, which is why I eventually ended up working with skeletal muscles,” said Röhrle. He enjoyed the interdisciplinary work with dentists, food scientists and engineers: “In contrast to theoretical mathematics, I was able to work with real data and real noise. And this was all completely new for me.” Röhrle worked with numerous partners to model and simulate the movement of jaw joints. He compared one- and three-dimensional muscle models with each other, always on the lookout for better simulations.
The practical application of his knowledge involved a rather exotic area: in cooperation with a meat processing company, the question arose as to how to make lamb meat more tender. “There was actually an economic background to this as processed, i.e. tender meat, tends to command a higher market price,” said Röhrle. The idea was to treat the meat with electrical pulses in order to break up molecular bindings in the muscle structure. Röhrle’s scientific approach involved the use of simulations to find out what happens on the cellular and muscular level when an electrical stimulus is applied. “Based on a systems biology perspective, we wanted to develop a cell model and couple it to the mechanical model of a skeletal muscle,” added Röhrle. Such investigations are also of great interest for human medical applications, as the biomechanics expert explains: “Approaches that use electrical stimulation to restore some degree of functionality in people suffering from paralysis already exist.”Still working in New Zealand, Röhrle read about a vacancy for a junior professor in the SimTech cluster of excellence and he saw this as an excellent opportunity to advance his personal career at the same time as being able to apply his research to other fields. Röhrle was appointed junior professor in the SimTech cluster in 2008 and has been working on advancing his personal career and applying his knowledge to other areas ever since. He continues to work with researchers in New Zealand: around a year ago, Röhrle received a Marie Curie grant that enables him to work with researchers from Auckland (NZ), Leeds (GB) and Queensland (AUS).
Röhrle is still concentrating on the musculo-skeletal system; he is currently optimising simulations of movements on the molecular, cellular and macroscopic-mechanical scale. In addition to skeletal muscles, Röhrle is also interested in the heart muscle and phenomena related to the transmission of electrical excitation in the heart. On 18th April 2011, Röhrle was awarded the Richard von Mises prize by the International Society of Applied Mathematics and Mechanics (GAMM). Röhrle was awarded the prize at the annual GAMM meeting in Graz, Austria for his work on multi-scale modelling in the field of biomechanics, in particular the biomechanics of the musculo-skeletal system. As junior professor, Röhrle supervises a large number of researchers and graduate students, works in close cooperation with other scientists of the SimTech cluster of excellence and is a lecturer at the University of Stuttgart. “My teaching priorities are biomechanics, numerical methods in the field of biomechanics and the simulation of biomaterials,” said the researcher. He brings these three topics into the engineering courses offered at the University of Stuttgart, and from autumn 2011 they will also be part of the interuniversity course of medical technology that is jointly organised by the Universities of Stuttgart and Tübingen.
Röhrle has experienced the German, American and New Zealand systems as both student and lecturer and is able to make a first-hand comparison: “The system in the two English-speaking countries offers greater scope for direct contact with students, for example through frequent meetings. There is no such room for frequent meetings with students in Germany where scientists are tasked with many more teaching obligations. In addition, the groups of students we have to look after are much larger than in the USA and New Zealand. What I regarded as positive, though rather stressful, were the lectures during my doctorate. However, progress is also being made in Germany in this area as graduate schools become more and more common.”
Further information:University of StuttgartSimTech Cluster of ExcellenceJun.-Prof. Oliver Röhrle, Ph. D.Institute of Applied Mechanics (Civil Engineering), Chair IIPfaffenwaldring 5a70569 StuttgartTel.: +49 (0)711 685- 66284E-mail: roehrle(at)simtech.uni-stuttgart.de