Professor Miki Banu, recently recognized with the Collegiate Research Professorship Award from the U-M Office of the Vice President for Research, draws inspiration from her industrious hometown in her efforts to improve society.
Professor Miki Banu, Associate Chair of Doctoral Education and Research for the division of Integrative Systems + Design, hails from the city of Galati, located on the shores of the Danube River as it snakes through Romania. Galati is one of the last cities along the river before the Danube falls into the Black Sea in the form of three branches forming the Danube Delta.
In addition to being a major thoroughfare for maritime traffic, Galati and the Danube River serve as a crossroads for metal production and shipyard construction. Over the decades, cities located along the Danube River basin were used to advance technologies as ships brought coal to be transformed into metal or building of ships and delivering them to the oceans. It is here where Professor Banu started an engineering journey that would eventually bring her to the University of Michigan.
The opportunities in the Galati industry played a large role in Professor Banu’s initial interest.
“I had the privilege to see and play with injection molding of polymers since I was a kid, visiting my mother’s company,” Dr. Banu said. “Polymer processing is the unbeatable cost-effective and flexible manufacturing process that nowadays is at the base of almost all polymeric products. Maybe this explains why manufacturing is the core of my research.”
This early exposure, along with the wealth of opportunities in Galati, led Professor Banu to start her academic career in her hometown.
“In the 1980s, at the time I decided which college to apply to, I was probably influenced by the economic power of my home city,” she said. “At that time, Galati was the headquarters of the two largest industry powers: the largest Iron and Steel Company in Europe and the largest Shipyard Company in Europe. Thus, students of Galati were anchored in two iconic pictures that defined the region along the Danube River as one starting point — the Iron and Steel Furnaces and the endpoint — the Shipyard Cranes.”
Move to Michigan
Professor Banu’s research career continued around the globe.
In 2012, she began at the University of Michigan. Here, she hoped to use her background in metal forming and research experience from time spent in France and Japan to address pressing global challenges by making manufacturing environmentally friendly through reduced pollution, and by fighting social inequities through people-centered manufacturing.
“Inspired by the Japanese culture for bamboo during my years spent as a visiting scientist at RIKEN Institute, Japan, in 2013, I started to work on developing a new method of natural fiber extraction from bamboo,” Dr. Banu said. “The successful development spanned in a research program open at U-M, which attracted funding support, a patent, winning competitions, establishing a startup and, most importantly, educating generations of talented and diverse students who embraced the culture of making a better world through using natural resources and transforming them into sustainable materials.”
Building on Success
After finding success in extracting natural fibers, Professor Banu has shifted her focus to engineering to mimic natural human functions.
“Thanks to three consecutive M-Cubed projects, and together with a large team of renowned scientists from the U-M School of Dentistry, I proposed a solution of restoring the sensing of a natural tooth in the dental implants through empowering a titanium root with smart attributes,” Dr. Banu said.
The intelligent dental implant has the potential for a broad impact through addressing the needs of about 160 million people suffering from edentulism or toothlessness. In the United States, about 15 million people have crown and bridge replacements for natural teeth, and over three million have implants.
“It is rewarding seeing the research program attracted outstanding collaborations, private clinicians’ interest and spanned in a patent proposal, multiple research proposals submitted to NSF, participation in conferences and preparing publications,” she said.