Meet Marilee Stephens, Research Associate and Assistant Lecturer, Biomedical Engineering

“It’s at the interfaces of disciplines where you can get some really important discoveries and innovation in applications to correct problems.”

Donna McKinnon - 03 October 2022

Meet Marilee Stephens, Research Associate and Assistant Lecturer, Biomedical Engineering

Although not new to the University of Alberta, it’s about time we got to know Marilee, who is fascinated by the inner workings of the human body and even likens it to the main disciplines of engineering!

“It’s at the interfaces of disciplines where you can get some really important discoveries and innovation in applications to correct problems.”

Hello Marilee!

Tell us about your research

The research I've been involved with mainly involves trying to understand the sensorimotor neural control of human movement (in my case, whole body movement with particular emphasis on bipedal standing and walking). How our bodies generate the amount of force we need to perform everyday tasks, and how we control these movements, is extremely fascinating, especially given the amount of variations seen amongst humans. Also, I am very interested in investigating possible treatments to help people who have suffered neuro trauma and degenerative disorders to try and regain some function.

What inspired you to enter this field?

The human body is a very cool piece of machinery (very complex - yes; highly intricate – definitely; efficient … eh … not so much, but still gets the job done). And even cooler, we all have one! I’ve been fascinated by the “machinery” of the human body since I was very young.  My mother worked as a Registered Nurse for many years, and even as a child, I was reading her textbooks and nursing magazines. Also, I grew up on a farm and there was always someone who had suffered some … interesting accident, with some resulting in permanent injury/disability.

What I find really interesting is the fact that the human body is really this highly complex, intricate machine, which incorporates aspects of all the main disciplines of engineering. You have nerves and muscles working via electrical impulses (well, technically electrochemical impulses), bringing in electrical engineering. You have muscles and other tissues producing forces (kinetics), acting around the axis of our joints, allowing for movement (kinematics), hence bringing in mechanical engineering. The body itself is really just a large conglomeration of chemicals, working together in various ways and undergoing different reactions, bringing in various aspects of chemical engineering, and the materials that are formed have to be able to deal with different internal and external influences, hence materials engineering comes into play. 

Even the various structures of tissues, in terms of shapes formed (such as the different shapes to different bones) can be examined as to how they work, bringing in aspects of civil engineering. All of these areas can be examined in the human body, and then when the system isn’t working properly, medicine and medical approaches to solving these issues also have to be considered. As was pointed out to me recently, it’s at the interfaces of disciplines where you can get some really important discoveries being made, and innovation in applications to correct problems. And applying all these disciplines to a problem that develops with injury and disability has allowed for some really innovative discoveries and device developments in the last several years.

The other aspect that has always fascinated me, however, is the human “machine” that carries out a certain set of various functions to allow us to live and interact within our environment, each machine variable from the next one. And each “machine” is highly adaptable. Different sizes, different abilities, interacting with different environments, from temperature extremes of the Arctic circle, to the tropical regions around the equator, to different oxygen levels and atmospheric pressures at sea levels to thousands of metres above sea level the human body can adapt to deal with these different conditions. But then there’s the question about why some people are built to do fast, high impact types of activities (think of the sprinter Andre de Grasse) versus those built for long distance, endurance type of activities, like long-distance running. The variability gives examining the human body an extra factor of complexity that I just find really amazing to investigate.

Tell us about your teaching

I’ve been teaching engineering students in my biomedical engineering courses for more than 10 years now, and I just love it. Two of my courses involve teaching them anatomy and physiology of the human body, from chemistry and cellular processes up to the various organ systems of the body. My other current course is one that looks at rehabilitation technologies for recovering/assisting movement for a number of different pathological conditions. I have to say, I just love teaching and working with the engineering students.

The main thing I’ve noticed with my students is that they really want to understand how each component of the body works from a functional standpoint, and then how the components then work together. They’re not interested in just memorizing a lot of facts about the body, they really want to know how it works. And to me, that is the goal of my courses.  

The other thing I find really interesting is that when I am presenting them with information about the body, they can come up with some of the most interesting, if occasionally perplexing, questions that I’ve ever been asked. Again, I think it’s due to how they approach the material, but usually once or twice a term I get asked a question that looks at the material I’m presenting in a way that I hadn’t considered before. I really enjoy when I get those types of questions, as they make me think (though I do sometimes have to go home and think on them a bit before I can come up with an answer). The students challenge me, and I really appreciate that about them.

What are your impressions of Edmonton/the University of Alberta?

I first moved to Edmonton from Ontario back in 1992 to pursue my PhD here. Growing up on a farm and having spent a few co-operative work terms in Toronto during my undergraduate degree, I found Edmonton to be the “right size” for me. I like that the city has all the amenities and cultural events that you can find in bigger cities, especially with regards to a number of our summer festivals (Folk-fest, the Fringe, etc.), which weren’t readily available when living on a farm, but not so big that you don’t feel a bit overwhelmed. I love visiting cities like Toronto, NYC, London, Rome, Paris, etc, but I just don’t know if I could live in them long-term.

As for the U of A, I really enjoy the “vibe” of the University. I like the mix of old and new buildings and how it’s relatively easy to get from one part of North Campus to another (relative in terms of depending on what season we’re in). I should note, when I first came in ’92, a lot of the buildings currently here were not here. No D-ICE (where I have my office now), no PAW, I don’t believe NINT was here, no CCIS, no ECHA. The Butterdome was here, and SUB was here (I mean, I’m not that old). The university has really changed in the last few decades, but there is a nice sense of community here.

What are your hobbies, or things you like to do outside of work?

I’m a voracious reader — science papers, reference textbooks, political articles, cheesy fiction novels. If it’s printed, I tend to at least attempt to read it (my family are all really big readers). A friend once informed me that it’s not normal for one family to have seven sets of encyclopedias! What can I say, my parents were big on education.

In terms of screen entertainment, I like a lot of different types of shows and movies, which can run the gamut from documentaries to rom-coms to sci-fi and fantasy to various dramas … I’m a bit of a plebeian that way. I do admit, I can be late jumping on the bandwagon of some big shows…I just watched all four seasons of Stranger Things this past summer. I’m afraid to jump into the whole Game of Thrones phenomena, which I missed on the first go-round.

For physical activities, my preferred exercise is swimming (needless to say, Covid was not helpful in that pursuit). I will run (well, jog) for my physical fitness, but I don’t particularly like it.  I enjoy watching sports a lot, but that comes from my interest in seeing what the human body is actually capable of. I find it fascinating to look at all the various ways we humans push our physical limits.

I am also a big music fan, and enjoy singing. I am involved with a choir here in the city. While I love a lot of past and current music for listening to (only genres I really don’t like are *really* twangy country, the type of metal where it’s just one long scream (sorry Death Metal fans), and some of the more “out-there” New Age/World type of music), the type of music I enjoy singing is somewhat more old-school jazz and big-band standards … I definitely don’t have a rock voice.

Currently, for the last several years, I’ve been teaching myself Italian using Duolingo (and while I am definitely still not fluent, it has helped me keep my brain engaged, which is always a good thing). Why Italian? I started before my sister and I took a trip to Italy several years ago, and just never stopped. I don’t know if that means I’m just really stubborn, or just too complacent to change anything in my everyday life, but it’s interesting and engages a part of my brain that I don’t tend to use for my “work” life.