Welcome Karl Lewis

BME Assistant Professor Karl Lewis
  • New Faculty Year: 2020

Karl Lewis has joined the faculty of the Nancy E. and Peter C. Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering at Cornell. Lewis’s research is focused on the interplay of mechanical cues and biological changes in musculoskeletal tissues. He comes to Cornell from a post-doctoral fellowship in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at the Indiana University School of Medicine.

Back in high school in the northwestern suburbs of Philadelphia, Lewis was drawn to math and science. “Math just made a lot of sense to me and it made my brain feel happy,’ says Lewis. “I enjoyed the element of discovery in science. And I also loved the way math and science together can explain the world. The notion that you could create a physics equation to predict the trajectory of an arrow was really fascinating to me.” Lewis did not know exactly what he wanted to do for a living at that point, but he did know it would involve healthy doses of exploration and discovery.

He was sure the first step would be an undergraduate degree. “I knew that I loved physics, I knew that I loved math, and I knew that I wanted to do something that was applied,” says Lewis. The way he remembers it now, he Googled some version of the question ‘What can I study that involves math and physics and is applied?’ Google steered Lewis toward the field of mechanical engineering and he was on his way.

Lewis earned his B.S. in mechanical engineering from Temple University in Philadelphia. While at Temple he had his first real taste of research. And he came to the realization that the opportunity for discovery in traditional mechanical engineering was not as exciting to him as the opportunity for discovery within the human body. “There is so much we don’t know about the human body,” says Lewis. “I like when people say ‘we don’t know how this thing works,’ because I want to then go figure it out.”

Lewis was awarded a research fellowship and spent his senior year at Temple working with Professor Nancy Pleshko. Pleshko mentioned to Lewis that he might be a good fit for future work with Professor Mitchell Schaffler at the City College of New York (CCNY). Lewis took this advice and pursued his Ph.D. in Schaffler’s lab at CCNY. “I went for an unofficial visit to see Mitch’s lab and within the first five minutes,” says Lewis, “we knew that we would get along really well. His work was really interesting and he was not afraid to take risks on pie-in-the-sky problems.”

Lewis spent almost six years at CCNY, working on research into bone cell mechanotransduction using intravital imaging. “I learned a lot from Mitch, both as a scientist and as a mentor,” says Lewis. “He is a physiologist in an engineering department and his perspective really resonated with me. He gave me the freedom to take on whatever I could take on and still be productive.” He continued, “Both Nancy and Mitch through their own examples have shown me the importance of paying it forward—and I’m excited to do that with students here at Cornell.”

After earning his Ph.D., Lewis spent three years in Indianapolis as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Indiana University School of Medicine, where he worked with Dr. Alex Robling. “One of our projects investigated the role of neurotransmitters in osteocyte mechanobiology using genetically modified mice bred in-house,” says Lewis. “The other used intravital fluorescent imaging techniques to observe changes in osteocyte calcium signaling as a function of genetic modification or pharmacological intervention.”

When asked why he chose to join the faculty at the Meinig School, Lewis rattles off a long list of reasons. “For one thing, Cornell’s founding motto—Any Person, Any Study—resonated with me right away; the environment feels very collaborative, collegial, and curious; the imaging modality I use principally (multi-photon microscopy) was invented here; there is a lot of opportunity to explore and discover here across a wide breadth of subjects; the students are fantastic; the facilities are amazing; and the people in the department have made me feel welcomed.”

At Cornell, Lewis will continue and expand the work he started in Indiana. “We leverage engineering principles and ideas to make discoveries in biological questions,” says Lewis. “Specifically, there are two main arms to our research. One of them is intravital imaging—we are looking to advance the ways intravital imaging is used in the study of musculoskeletal tissues with an emphasis on understanding acute signaling changes in disease. The other arm is biomechanics. We look at how load or mechanical force can initiate or protect against disease in musculoskeletal tissues.”

Outside of the lab and the classroom, Lewis likes to relax with good food, music, reading fiction, running, biking, and doing yoga.

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