By Taylor Reeves
Mechanical engineering professor Richard Figliola has taken his research from the classroom to the cockpit and everywhere in between. From basic aerodynamics courses with Clemson undergraduates to an international research network that combats congenital heart diseases, Figliola is engaging in creative and meaningful work on both local and global scales.
Since joining the mechanical engineering department in 1980, Figliola has developed and taught various courses in aerodynamics and fluid mechanics, calling upon his professional experience with organizations such as NATO and the Air Force. His interest in aerodynamics was propelled beyond the classroom in the mid-1980s when he discovered that one of his students worked as a pilot instructor.
“He came up to me and said, ‘Well, you talk about airplanes like an engineer. Now how would you like to talk about them like a pilot?’” Figliola said.
Within three months, he had his pilot’s license.
Figliola’s current research runs a broad gambit. In addition to researching fluid mechanics and aerodynamics at Clemson, he works with the Air Force conducting uncertainty analyses for design models. He is an elected Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
Figliola’s most notable and rewarding work, however, is his involvement with Foundation Leducq, an international organization that supports research to combat cardiovascular and neurovascular disease. Figliola serves as the American coordinator of a network of researchers focusing on multiscale modeling of single ventricle hearts. Figliola and his team are studying hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS), a rare congenital heart condition in which the left side of the heart is severely underdeveloped.
“Although the defect is uncommon, I’ve met several people in Clemson whose children were born with single-ventricle hearts,” said Figliola. “Thirty years ago, these children would have been sent home and died within days. Now, we’re finding ways to let many of them live into adulthood and lead relatively normal lives.”
The process involves a three-stage surgical reconstruction that allows the functioning ventricle to provide blood to the entire body. Because each HLHS case is unique, choosing appropriate means of treatment can pose a challenge. Figliola and his transatlantic network of researchers are working to develop computer models specific to each patient that will simulate different operations and their effects. The network received a five-year $6 million grant in 2008 to develop these multiscale models that will help determine which surgeries are most effective for HLHS patients. The initiative is now beginning its third year.
Aside from his research and teaching duties, Figliola enjoys spending time with his wife, Sue, a dietician with a practice in Clemson, and daughter, Elizabeth, a junior at the College of Charleston. His pilot’s license has proven useful, as the family enjoys traveling across the country for both professional and leisure excursions.
Figliola was recently named the 2011 recipient of Clemson University’s Class of 1939 Award for Excellence. The award is given annually to one distinguished faculty member whose contributions for a five-year period have been judged by his or her peers to demonstrate outstanding service to the University, the student body and the greater community. In addition to receiving a stipend, recipients of the award become honorary members of Clemson’s Class of 1939.
“It’s great that the award is voted on by colleagues,” Figliola said. “I was gratified to be recognized by my peers.”
As a new year gets under way, he hopes to continue sharing his interests with Clemson students and making significant advances in his field on an international level.
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