Lehigh University
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Bioengineering student, a young father, takes aim at the middle ear infection

David Bell has more pressing reasons than most undergraduate students to seek new treatments for middle ear infections.

At 26 years old, Bell is the father of three children, aged 4, 2 and 1. None of his kids had endured a bout of otitis media until recently, but Bell is well aware that the middle ear infection is the most common disease among small children in America today.

Bell, a junior, is pursuing a B.S. in bioengineering, one of Lehigh's most rigorous academic programs. He has taken a circuitous route to college, but he suffers no shortage of motivation and he knows where he wants to go.

For the short term, Bell is using finite-element analysis to study the functioning of the eustachian tube. He is trying to show that two-dimensional MRI models, which are cheaper and less invasive, can diagnose some eustachian tube problems as accurately as 3-D models can. He works with Samir Ghadiali, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and mechanics, who studies the mechanical and physical properties of the eustachian tube in hopes of developing therapies that take aim at the underlying cause of ear infections.

For the long term, Bell wants to attend graduate school and learn to design instruments that shorten and simplify surgical procedures. He had originally hoped to develop improved artificial limbs but changed his mind after a six-month internship last year with Johnson & Johnson, where he worked with an R&D team making an open-heart-surgery device.

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By his own admission, David Bell floundered for a few years after graduating from Bethlehem's Freedom High School.

"In the five years between high school and college, I was a bit of a slacker," he says. "I held your basic after-school jobs - fast food, gas stations, construction. Then I got a job as a pipefitter installing fire-suppressant systems.

"I was married by this time and my wife and I had our first child. I was working 60, 65 hours some weeks, but I realized I was not going to make much money, not enough to have more kids or to afford anything bigger than a two-bedroom apartment."

After taking occasional evening college courses, Bell enrolled full-time at Northampton Area Community College. He compiled a 3.9 grade-point average in the college's general engineering curriculum, took a career-aptitude test and discovered an interest in medicine.

"I decided to transfer to a four-year college quickly - before my GPA could drop," Bell says.

He applied to Lehigh, which not only accepted him but offered a full financial-aid package, including a scholarship endowed specifically for students who transfer from community colleges. The grants have helped, and Bell says his family also got a lift from the children's tax credits passed by Congress in 2001.

Despite growing commitments at home, Bell chose to major in bioengineering, a demanding program offered by the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science and the College of Arts and Sciences that trains students in engineering, the life and physical sciences, and health care.

Bioengineering students specialize in biopharmaceutical engineering, in bioelectronics and biophotonics, or in cell and tissue engineering, the track Bell has chosen. They discuss technological and ethical issues in seminar classes, they complete industrial internships, and they work on extended research projects.

Bell schedules classes in the morning and early afternoon, studies or works in the lab until dinner, returns home to be with his family, and then studies again late at night.

"I have to juggle my time," says Bell. "My wife [Cathy Bell] is very supportive."

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of Lehigh's bioengineering program, says Bell, is the requirement that each student complete a four-semester research project supervised by a faculty member or an industrial mentor.

Bell's project with Prof. Ghadiali is in its preliminary stages. They hope to help find a way to treat ear infections by addressing the underlying mechanical cause of infections - the failure of the eustachian tube to stay open. This would help doctors overcome the growing resistance of bacteria to the antibiotics that are typically used to treat infections.

"Our goal is twofold," says Bell. "Since the middle ear is a very complex system, we want to figure out which aspects - geometry, forces, direction of forces, boundary conditions and other natural properties - are most important in the function of the eustachian tube.

"Second, we want to show that 2-D MRI models are accurate enough for a diagnosis. This is important because 2-D models require less time and less resolution than 3-D models."

In his research, Bell has found that scientists can learn as much from failure as they do from success.

"Research never goes as planned," he says. "One day I spent eight hours in Prof. Ghadiali's lab. I was in his office every five or 10 minutes asking questions. Nothing was working. It seemed like I ran the same simulation with varying parameters 100 times. It took me a week and a half till I got the right results."

So far at Lehigh, Bell has compiled a GPA of 3.89.

"I came to school with a purpose," he says. "This is going to pay for my family's way of life. Without good grades, there's no point being here. Having three kids is a motivation. If they're going to sacrifice not having me around and not having a lot of money, there had better be a darned good reason."

Bell just completed his fourth semester at Lehigh. After he earns his B.S., he hopes to go to graduate school, possibly at the University of Utah, whose bioengineering program was founded with help from Willem Kolff, the Dutch scientist who invented the world's first artificial heart.

Posted on Sunday, June 05, 2005

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