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Sonia Bansal: Creating a Community of Support in the Classroom

New faculty member Sonia Bansal aims to develop courses that will give students foundational skills and practical engineering experiences they need to succeed

Sonia Bansal joined the faculty of Duke University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering on July 1, 2023. With experience with both biomechanical research and engineering education, Bansal will teach and develop courses that will give Duke BME students the necessary skills to become more well-rounded engineers.

Bansal was first introduced to the world of biomechanics as an undergraduate student at Columbia University, where she worked in an engineering lab that specialized in cartilage tissue modeling. This work inspired and informed her research as a PhD student at University of Pennsylvania, where she studied how the meniscus, a key piece of cartilage that acts as a cushion between the shinbone and thighbone, can be modelled and repaired in both healthy and diseased states.

But while she was working at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City studying meniscus injuries as a postdoctoral fellow, Bansal signed up to teach a graduate-level engineering course at the City College of New York. The experience altered the course of her career.

“I’d been excited about teaching my whole life,” says Bansal. “I went to graduate school with the goal of eventually becoming a faculty member at a university, but it wasn’t until I taught that class that I decided to take the plunge and really go for it as my primary responsibility.”

Prior to her arrival at Duke, Bansal was an assistant professor at the University of Delaware. There, Bansal primarily worked with undergraduate students, designing courses that combined the hard skills of engineering, like lab skills and prototyping, with the foundational soft skills that enable students to succeed in their chosen career, like the ability to write a CV or impressive personal statement.

Bansal will continue this work in her new position at Duke, where she’ll teach both existing courses and develop new programs of her own.

“One example I’ve been thinking over is an animal models class,” explains Bansal. “It would be a retrospective on the animal models we use, from C. elegans all the way up to horses and monkeys, and the course would be about interrogating why we use these animals, and if there are better choices for the research questions we have. It’s a good way to talk about the ethics behind the work we do, but also investigate how to potentially reduce the use of these models in the future.”

While teaching will be Bansal’s primary focus, she’ll still put her biomechanical background to good use. One of her goals is to teach a high-level orthopedic biomechanics class that would combine classical biomechanics approaches and new, cutting-edge biomechanical tests. Bansal is optimistic that the course could also include a clinical component, allowing students to work with physicians in the Duke University Medical Center to validate their work and learn more about the field.

Bansal is also looking forward to working with her new colleagues to launch new courses and outreach programs that will extend beyond the walls of Duke.

“One of the things that drew me to Duke BME was the large teaching faculty in the department,” says Bansal. “I think that the collaboration you get from having a community of faculty focused on teaching enables you to have a lot of opportunities for growth and feedback. I’m excited to build my own communities in my classes, where everyone––from the students to the TAs to the other teaching faculty–– feels like they have the support they need to succeed.”