College News

Committed to problem-solving, graduate student sets sights on practical challenges

Frank Ko played soccer in high school. Like everyone, now and then, he suffered an injury. Perhaps different from most, though, Ko transformed these injuries into learning opportunities by studying how his body worked – or didn’t. Years later, Ko is a graduate student in mechanical engineering and has dedicated his doctoral studies to orthopedic research.

“I tried other fields,” Ko said. “Neuroscience, medical physics. They’re all interesting, but orthopedics is so relevant to everyday life I couldn’t walk away from it.”

Ko’s research focuses on improving our understanding of osteoarthritis, a condition caused by the degeneration of joint cartilage and the underlying bone. Building on previous investigations also conducted by graduate students at Cornell, Ko works in the laboratory of graduate advisor Dr. Marjolein Van der Meulen, who is the Swanson Professor of Biomedical Engineering. He is using a mechanical tibial loading model to determine if increased loading on the knee joint also increases bone mass as well as cartilage damage. His work has demonstrated that both cartilage and bones do change with increased weight, with bone becoming thicker. Thicker bones tend to be stiffer, a factor that relates to increased stress transmitted to cartilage.

Working at the protein and tissue levels, Ko hopes his discoveries will result in new treatment strategies for osteoarthritis that are based on why and how the condition occurs.

“Exercise is one way of reducing the pain that is caused by osteoarthritis,” said Ko, who watched his grandmother suffer with the disease before having knee replacements. “I believe that there has to be an effective drug or exercise interventions that not only reduce the pain associated with the disease, but also prevent and cure osteoarthritis, and I’m hoping to provide scientific knowledge through experiments that will lead to discovering effective treatment strategy.”

Ko recently presented his research at the 2012 Orthopaedic Research Society Conference in San Francisco. With support from the Kappa Delta / American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) Travel Award, Ko was able to speak at the conference without passing on the financial costs of attending to his graduate advisor. The fund was established by Dr. Cornelia Farnum in 2010 after she won the Kappa Delta Elizabeth Winston Lanier Award, which is presented annually by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. The travel award promotes orthopedic research at Cornell University by providing up to $1,500 in travel expenses for a trainee who will be presenting research at the annual meeting of the Orthopaedic Research Society, which is the research society of the AAOS.

“I am proud that I earned the fellowship,” said Ko. “Being self-sufficient is important to me. I don’t want to be a burden, so when I had the opportunity to apply for resources that would allow me to do something beneficial for me and for the research community, I was excited to try.”

Ko was one of 11 applicants for the 2012 Fellowship program.

“Submissions for the 2012 fellowship were impressive,” said Dr. Cornelia Farnum, James Law Professor of Anatomy at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “I am continually inspired by the spirit and energy that Cornell’s graduate students exude as they explore the myriad topics in the area of orthopedic research.”

The research area is, of course, important to Ko. But, he says, the opportunity to address challenges is what attracted him to a research career in the first place. “My dream is to solve problems, so research suits me well.”