Did a young athlete’s travails on the playing field influence her career choice in the science field?
Ask Kristine Fischenich, a postdoctoral research associate at CU Boulder.
Fischenich was an athlete for much of her early life. Soccer, swimming, track, golf and tennis—she excelled in all of them throughout middle school and high school.
Starting at age 13 when she tore her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) for the first of three times, she was then in and out of physical therapy rehab clinics for years.
Fischenich works in the research group of Associate Professor Virginia Ferguson’s biomechanics lab in the mechanical engineering department at CU Boulder. Her primary work is to characterize the soft tissues of the lower limbs to better understand the effects of injury and disease as well as drive material design for potential tissue-engineered replacements and therapies.
“Because I was more interested in tissue biomechanics and designing therapeutic alternatives, I pursued a mechanical engineering background,” she said.
In Vicksburg, Mississippi, where she grew up, Fischenich was the first seventh-grader to make varsity soccer. She lettered all six years in soccer and swimming, and four years in golf. And she made the all-star teams. Excelling at sports took a toll on her young legs, which resulted in three ACL replacements among a litany of other injuries and abrasions.
Despite the stress on her body, Fischenich didn’t restrict her sports activities. She had surgeries, wore braces to play and needed frequent physical rehabilitation. At the clinics she saw a host of applications for using engineering and medical science for healing.
Developing an interest in biomedical engineering research
Her interactions with patients at the clinic drove her down the path toward biomedical engineering research. Hearing about their physical ailments provided a window into the type of injuries common in the various populations—hip injuries in the elderly, ACL injuries in athletes.
Her father was a civil engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers in Vicksburg. His area of specialization was environmental engineering projects involving river and stream restoration with a focus on aquatic ecosystem restoration, endangered species recovery and adaptive management.
Watching him work, Fischenich found his projects interesting enough to conduct her own independent study in environmental sciences—but not quite interesting enough to pursue that area of engineering for her own career.
“I don’t think of my career aspirations as being a direct result of my injuries,” Fischenich said. “Yes, it had an impact, but it was more of a natural progression from growing up with an engineering father and then combining that engineering upbringing with my interests in sports. In high school I had decided to pursue a solely academic path to college rather than one based on sports, but being an athlete remained part of my identity.”
She earned her undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Mississippi in 2012. At Colorado State University, her thesis research focused on two different models of post-traumatic osteoarthritis. Osteoarhritis (OA) is normally considered a degenerative disease occurring during the ’60s and ’70s. But for athletes who are injured when they’re between 13 and 20 years old, they’re facing OA symptoms in their ’30s and ’40s. Fischenich continued her research in the field of OA working on the development of an artificial meniscus for her dissertation work, which she completed in 2018.
“The facilities here are phenomenal,” she said. “We have equipment that is not available at all universities, which is a huge plus for CU. Because the biomedical field is so broad, it opens a lot of opportunity for new ideas and unique collaborations, and that is exciting.”
Fischenich works closely with surgeons at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus. Since not all work conducted in the research setting translates into the clinical setting, the opportunity for her to directly interact with clinicians is a bonus for everyone.
“Biomedical engineering is such a diverse field,” she said. “People don’t really have a context for the various types of important work being done. My hope is to have shed more light on this specific area of research.”
About to turn 30, Fischenich’s bad knee hurts almost daily. She is hopeful though that her work in the lab is a step toward understanding the body a little better and keeping other 13-year-olds healthy so they can stay on the field as long as they like.