American Society of Mechanical Engineers names UD’s Jill Higginson 2022 Fellow

Jill Higginson, a professor of mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering at the University of Delaware, has been elected Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME).

Fewer than 3,500 of 64,428 current ASME members are Fellows, a prestigious distinction awarded to scholars with sustained significant engineering achievements who have been with the society for at least a decade.

“Dr. Jill Higginson’s election as a Fellow of the ASME is a well-deserved recognition of her contributions to the understanding of human muscle coordination using both experiments and simulations,” said Ajay Prasad, Engineering Alumni Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “She has gained an international reputation for her work in the muscle coordination of post-stroke gait, design of intervention studies to improve motor performance and the progression of knee osteoarthritis.”

Higginson joined the College of Engineering faculty in 2004. Four years later, she became the first female director of the University’s Center for Biomechanical Engineering Research, an interdisciplinary center with a mission to provide engineering science and clinical technology to reduce the impact of disease on the everyday life of individuals. In 2010, Higginson became the founding director of UD’s biomedical engineering program, coordinating the undergraduate program through 2013.

She’s also served as the associate director of the Delaware Rehabilitation Institute, which now lives on in the Center for Human Research Coordination, and since August 2019 has served as Associate Dean for Graduate and Post-Graduate Education in the College of Engineering. Those leading roles have also challenged Higginson to create programs, curricula and cross-disciplinary cultures from scratch.

“She has been immensely impactful as a mentor both in the classroom and in her lab,” Prasad said. “It is a privilege to be her colleague.”

The Neuromuscular Biomechanics Lab Higginson directs at UD examines how people with neurological impairments, like stroke patients, walk differently in order to engineer life-changing solutions. Computer modeling that can show the connection between the nervous system and muscles adds a theoretical perspective to her research, as well.

By simulating human movement, and using experimental data to strengthen the accuracy of those simulations, Higginson can better understand the mechanics of muscle movements and how people struggling with neurological disorders cope. She can then use that information to better inform treatments or therapies.

Higginson said it was an honor to have been nominated for the award, and is flattered that her work has been recognized by her peers.

“You think of the Fellows as the people who are creating the next generation of engineers and engineering, and it’s exciting to be a part of that,” she said.

Higginson’s love of engineering first began in high school, when she attended an engineering camp for girls and was intrigued by the projects related to human health. After receiving her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell University, a master’s degree in bioengineering from Penn State and a doctoral degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford University, she was drawn to UD for its strength in biomechanics, she said.

Even though the Department of Biomedical Engineering didn’t exist yet, she found the University to be truly interdisciplinary, and found her colleague Thomas Buchanan building many of those cross-sector partnerships.

Buchanan, who was involved in hiring Higginson, described her as “a joy to work with,” a researcher with a positive outlook toward innovation and a problem-solver who’s on track to make significant strides in the world of biomedical research.

“If I ever wanted to come here and work with somebody, she would be my first choice,” said Buchanan, Laird Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Director of the Delaware Rehabilitation Institute. “She’s a fantastic person.”

In 2019, Higginsons also was inducted into the College of Fellows of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering. She has published over 125 peer-reviewed articles and abstracts, which have garnered more than 6,000 citations, according to Google Scholar.

Buchanan said he’s known Higginson since she was a graduate student, and has enjoyed watching her career take off.

“She’s at the top of her game,” he said. “I think she’s a real asset to the College. The only downside is students who come to work in biomechanics all want to work with her — but I would rather work with her, too.”

| Photo illustration by Joy Smoker |