University of Texas at Austin


CSEM Student Kenneth Meyer Discusses Computational Medicine Portfolio Program

By Aira Balasubramanian

Published Oct. 18, 2023

Kenneth Meyer. Credit: Joanne Foote

Kenneth Meyer’s path to research in cardiovascular modeling was forged through an evolving yet everpresent desire to apply his mathematical and computational skills in the real world.

“I had always liked math, and I wanted something more hands on, more applied,” he reminisced. After coming to UT as an undergraduate student, Meyer made the switch from pure mathematics to computational engineering after realizing how much he enjoyed bridging mathematical theory with other research disciplines. 

COVID-19 hit in the middle of Meyer’s undergraduate education. As the world ground to a halt, he found himself struggling with a little bit of an academic identity crisis: “It kind of came out of nowhere, and out of how everything shut down…I wanted to be able to do something about it. I started wondering if I should’ve been premed, or if I should have gone to medical school,” he reminisced, smiling wryly. 

It kind of came out of nowhere, and out of how everything shut down. I wanted to be able to do something about it.

— Kenneth Meyer

Med school musings aside, Meyer quickly found his niche in computational medicine, and began working at the Willerson Center for Cardiovascular Modelling and Simulation in the fall of his third year. Now, he’s a second year graduate student pursuing a portfolio in computational medicine within the Computational Science and Engineering graduate program here at the Oden Institute, while continuing his research at the Willerson Center with Director Michael Sacks

Kenneth’s work focuses on cardiovascular mechanics, and applying the finite element method to understand the deformation of heart valve leaflets. “We’re essentially using continuum mechanics to describe the equations that govern valve leaflet deformation. Then we use the Finite Element Method to numerically solve these partial differential equations on a discretized heart valve” Meyer explained. These leaflets are one-way gateways through heart chambers, guiding blood through the heart and out to the body, ensuring that it is equipped to deliver oxygen and nutrients to tissues.

“We’re also currently using Neural Networks in the function approximation sense to accelerate the numerical computations normally done by the Finite Element Method. If we can approximate a function that predicts displacement when given a pressure load and a leaflet geometry as input, we can obtain leaflet stresses and strains, which can help predict where leaflets may fail and guide surgical repair processes for heart valves” Kenneth shared. By isolating a leaflet and modeling how it deforms, its nonlinear behavior can be better understood and simulated in high fidelity. These modeling techniques can then be applied to full heart models. Heart valve damage is a leading cause of heart failure, making the implications of this research critical in cardiovascular medicine. 

Kenneth’s work also focuses on ensuring that the results of cardiovascular models are applicable and useful to medical providers and clinicians: “You can do a ton of math and make a model, but it’s no good if a practitioner can’t analyze it or use it in a time frame that makes sense,” Kenneth shared. “That’s the most rewarding and most challenging part of this research: talking to doctors and providers and making sure that our work meets their needs and supports their work.”

That’s the most rewarding and most challenging part of all of this: talking to doctors and providers and making sure that our work meets their needs and supports their work.

— Kenneth Meyer

This cross-discipline interaction forms the foundation of what Kenneth loves about the computational medicine program. “The Oden Institute really emphasizes being an interdisciplinary research institution, and I’ve always wanted my work to have a broader impact than just the scientific community,” he stated. “The computational medicine program really brought everything together for me.”

Kenneth’s journey in computational medicine research has been supported and sustained by the mentors and friends he’s found in his lab and program. “Shruti Motiwale taught me everything, from how our lab works, to how our code works, to everything in between," he shared.  Meyer credits his mentors at the Willerson Center along with his advisor, Dr. Michael Sacks, with his development as both a scientist and leader: “They gave me a lot of life skills-some of it was just teaching me to show up to places on time,” he joked. As a CSEM student representative, Kenneth now serves as a leader in the graduate community, building and paying forward the Oden Institute’s culture of collaboration and support. 

As recruitment for next semester’s cohort of Computational Medicine Portfolio students begins, Kenneth advises applicants to take a deep breath and let go of their worries. “I’m not going to say that this program or grad school isn’t competitive, but don’t worry too much-one part of an application is never going to make or break you. Do your research, and find a program and advisors that really fit what you’re looking for-I know I’ve found that fit for myself here.”

Do your research, and find a program and advisors that really fit what you’re looking for-I know I’ve found that fit for myself here.

— Kenneth Meyer

Information about the Computational Medicine Portfolio Program: The Computational Medicine Portfolio Program is intended for graduate students with strong mathematical and physical science backgrounds, but limited knowledge of biology and/or medicine, to pursue a program of study that will prepare them to interact knowledgably and collaborate productively with members of the medical community on interdisciplinary, cutting-edge research. It is important to realize that medicine itself is an enormous field, consisting of numerous subdisciplines, and Computational Medicine has become an important research direction in most of the larger subdisciplines. For these reasons, the Computational Medicine Portfolio will allow for the maximum flexibility to suit students whose interests reside within specific subdisciplines, which are currently Cardiovascular, Oncology and Neurology. For applicants interested in applying for the spring semester, click here to access the application.