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From a knee injury to the biomechanics of babies: How Mannen’s lab is engineering for the most vulnerable

Erin Mannen, assistant professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering and faculty director of the Boise Applied Biomechanics of Infants (BABI) Laboratory, earned her Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Kansas in 2014 and has been at Boise State since 2020.

Mannen’s journey to becoming an engineer started with an injury, a torn ACL playing high school basketball in Kansas. Coupled with excelling at math and science, the rehabilitation process led her deeper into engineering, specifically biomedical and biomechanics, and how engineers played a role in every element of her recovery.

Knees and spine cadavers became a familiar sight for Mannen’s undergraduate and graduate research. But infants didn’t figure in her work until giving birth to her first child, just nine days after she defended her Ph.D. The birth of her child led to endless questions about infant products, their safety for her child and their musculoskeletal health.

The unique biomechanics of babies

Mannen would come to realize that while there were well established approaches for testing musculoskeletal systems for children and adults, the same for babies was an area vastly understudied. She realized this area of research was a tremendous opportunity and something she could shape her entire career around and still barely scratch the surface.

“While this type of science has been around for decades, it doesn’t exist for babies until more recently,” Mannen said. “We are coming up with innovative ways to apply the field of biomechanics to our youngest and most vulnerable friends.”

In the BABI Lab, using electromyography sensors, motion capture technology and other testing devices developed by the team, Mannen explores how babies move and use their muscles, and what that means for product development and safety.

“Everyone has been a baby,” Mannen said. “Our research in product safety has implications for every consumer of infant products – so grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles or anyone else buying a gift for a friend who has had a child, giving them the confidence that what they are buying is truly safe for the infant.”

Strong mentorship

Mannen cites motherhood and mentorship as two key components which led her to an award-winning career in academia.

“I was really fortunate to be a student in a department that had several female faculty members,” Mannen said. “Not just that, but there were successful, young, female engineers with families and children. To have those models in your everyday life was super critical for me even though I couldn’t necessarily see it at the time.”

Mannen credits these key female mentors, who encouraged and supported her education and provided role models of successful female engineers with families and children, with helping establish the culture of her lab, a culture passionate about giving back to the community by improving the health and wellness of babies through biomechanics.

“For over half my life now I’ve been a woman in engineering, it is my life,” Mannen said. “I feel a lot of responsibility for being that role model for other women in the same way I was able to find that support system.”

National recognition

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission hired Mannen as an independent expert to conduct infant testing to evaluate the design of inclined sleep products after receiving reports of 1,108 incidents, including 73 infant deaths, related to inclined sleep products between January 2005 and June 2019.

Mannen and her team discovered that none of the inclined sleep products tested by the team were safe for infant sleep. Her report to the CPSC contributed to millions of recalls for infant sleep products all across the country. A new standard for infant sleep products took effect in 2022 thanks in part to Mannen’s research.

Additionally, Kids in Danger, an organization that advocates for product safety for children presented their Best Friend Award to Mannen “for her groundbreaking infant sleep research that has led to policy changes and saved lives.”

“I’m hopeful our research in understanding how babies move, their musculoskeletal development, and infant product safety will help lay the groundwork so that infant biomechanics as a field can mature and grow the same way it has for adults and children in the last 40 to 50 years,” Mannen said.

For more information about the Boise Applied Biomechanics of Infants Laboratory visit Boise Applied Biomechanics of Infants (BABI) Lab. For more information about the Boise State College of Engineering and its transdisciplinary undergraduate, graduate and doctoral programs visit Boise State College of Engineering.

-by Jamie Fink