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Maria Holland Joins Faculty

Nina Welding • DATE: September 26, 2017

As an undergraduate, Maria Holland initially refused to consider a major in mechanical engineering because she didn’t want to “work on cars.” Today, as the Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor in the Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering, one of Holland’s primary goals is to share a broader vision of what engineering is and who engineers are. “I strongly believe that misconceptions, like the one I held when I was younger, serve as obstacles to the recruitment and retention of great students and future leaders. Addressing these myths head-on — like the idea that true engineers are born with ‘the knack’ or some innate ability that cannot be taught or learned — is key to helping so many students achieve their goals.”

In the classroom, Holland helps students progress toward a mastery of the material while also stressing its place in the larger body of knowledge. “Context is hugely important,” she says. “I want my students to learn something but also understand what to do with that knowledge and how it relates to the world around them.”

When she’s not in class you’ll find Holland in her lab. Her research interests focus on computational biomechanics, using solid mechanics and computational tools to address important questions about the brain. “It’s one of our most complex, yet least understood organs. And there are many unresolved questions about how the brain works, how it develops, and how to protect.”

Holland believes mechanics brings a valuable perspective to understanding the brain, although it is unlike traditional engineering materials in nearly every way because it’s heterogeneous, anisotropic, growing, porous, and extremely soft.  

As she continues her work, she will be working closely with clinicians and experimentalists to answer both basic questions and more applied topics. In a current project, she is working with researchers at Stanford Medical School and studying brain development in autism, specifically tracking the evolution of cortical thickness to gain insights into the relationship between the form and function of the brain. Future projects will study autism and other diseases and disorders that have their root in the development that takes place during gestation.