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Engineering Frontiers by Design

Bill Messner is an expert on control systems, the engineering field of making systems that perform functions automatically, like an automobile cruise control or a home thermostat. In the past, he focused on directing robots and on improving data storage for computers. Now he’s shifting his sights to biological research that could one day help us treat human illness.

Messner, who chairs the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Tufts University School of Engineering, is interested in how biological systems control themselves, and he has been working on building control systems for instruments used to probe cells and tissues. He has already helped devise a new control mechanism that scientists can use when they are studying how tissues respond to chemical stimuli. Understanding how biological systems operate, he says, could eventually help researchers develop therapies to repair damaged tissues or treat cancer.

Messner’s work is supported by the John R. Beaver Professorship of Engineering, which was created thanks to the generosity of the late John Beaver, E51, who earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at Tufts. Beaver left two New Hampshire properties to the university, with the proceeds of their sale to be used for the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

“Mechanical engineering is an incredibly diverse field, with activity in biomedical devices, energy, robotics, aerospace systems, manufacturing, and electronics, among others,” says professor Robert Hannemann, formerly acting chair of the department. “Underlying many of the products in these areas is control system design—Bill Messner’s area of specialization. So, while also providing department leadership, Bill perfectly complements the research of the faculty.”

The legacy left through the Beaver gift is not only supporting Messner’s current research and leadership of the department, though. It will also continue to support him and future professors as they explore the frontiers of how engineering can improve lives.