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Jul 12, 2010

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Programmer finds niche in biomechanical research lab

By Alisa Kim

“I do interesting work, but if you look at me on an average day, my job might look boring,” says Dr. Maarten Beek, a research engineer at Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI).

Although he sits at a computer for much of the workday, Beek’s work is hardly your typical desk job. A member of the orthopaedic biomechanics lab run by Dr. Cari Whyne, director of the Holland Musculoskeletal Research Program at SRI, Beek develops software for image analysis and finite element (FE) models to help researchers study changes in bone when cancer spreads to the spine.

Finite element modelling is a design tool used in mechanical engineering that enables detailed predictions of where structures bend and twist under the pressure of weight. Whyne’s group uses FE analysis to assess vertebral structure and fracture risk, and to track disease progression or treatment over time.

“Oftentimes with cancer patients, the cancer goes into the vertebrae. The strength of the affected vertebrae is compromised, and they might collapse. You can’t predict when that will happen,” says Beek. “We want to be able to predict that, so we'll be able to help prevent patients from getting these fractures.”

To generate models that aid Whyne’s group in predicting the strength of healthy and diseased bone, Beek develops software extensions for Amira, a program that provides visualization of biomedical data.

He also helps lab members use this software to analyze computed tomography and magnetic resonance images of cancer in the bone in preclinical models, and to troubleshoot research results. “I’m there if they have problems [with the] coding. The software we use gets updated all the time. On top of developing new code, I also have to make sure that our existing code keeps working with the new versions,” he says.

The group is also designing new orthopaedic devices, including a tissue-engineered gel intended to replace worn intervertebral discs, thereby preventing bone-on-bone contact. Beek is helping develop a model that shows to what extent the load-bearing capabilities of the gel match those of healthy intervertebral discs.

Career Path

He has only worked in the orthopaedic biomechanics lab at SRI for two years, but Beek brings extensive experience in biomechanical engineering, software development and FE analysis to his role. A native of the Netherlands, Beek took his PhD in biomechanical engineering from the University of Amsterdam in 2001. For the next four years he worked in the university’s faculty of dentistry where he analyzed FE simulations of human jaw joint -loading and did experiments to determine the mechanical properties of cartilage.

He then went on to do a postdoctoral fellowship at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, where he made a 3-D model of human wrist joint motion using specialized computer software. Following this, Beek worked at the School of Computing at Queen’s, developing software for computer-assisted surgery.

His career path has taken him away from friends and family back home, but Beek says he knew that academia was not for him and is happy working in research. “I’m working on stuff that very few people in the world work on. Sometimes I spend weeks on a 10-line code, and that can be frustrating. But once it’s working, I’ve done something that’s not been done before. It’s kind of special. That keeps me going.”


The Canada Foundation for Innovation and Ministry of Research and Innovation provided infrastructure funding for the orthopaedic biomechanics laboratory.