Triathlons, cancer and mechanical engineering



She has completed five Ironman Challenges and has qualified three times to represent Canada at the Long Distance Triathlon World Championships. Delphine Périé-Curnier, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Polytechnique Montréal, shares these exploits with her husband, Daniel Curnier, a professor in the Department of Kinesiology at Université de Montréal, and their two boys aged 11 and 12. In 2011, the entire Curnier family took part in the World Championships in Nevada. The children were among the youngest runners on the start line!

"Preparing for an Ironman is very demanding," observes Périé-Curnier. And yet, she and her husband manage to do it, juggling their busy research agendas and their sons' school schedules. They have even pushed their passion to the point of including it in a research project. "The triathlon community is constantly seeking to improve cycling aerodynamics," explains the researcher. "Engineers are currently doing a great deal of work on the bicycle frame and parts, but very little on the effect of the rider's position, due to a lack of tools." The Curniers are therefore attempting to develop and validate a set of technologies that will help optimize a cyclist's overall biomechanical, physiological and aerodynamic performance. Delphine Périé-Curnier is in charge of computer simulation, while her husband focuses on the physiological aspects of the project.

Reducing the risk of heart problems

The couple are using a similar approach to study the effect of chemotherapy on the hearts of children suffering from cancer. "Statistics show that many cardiac problems arise 10 to 15 years following treatment," notes the scientist. She is following a cohort of 250 young people who are in remission from the disease. While her husband measures their heart health during exercise, Périé-Curnier uses MRI to closely observe their hearts. "We see that chemotherapy changes the structure and the direction of heart fibres, which can decrease heart function over time," she explains. Her goal? To develop imaging and modelling tools to detect these changes earlier, allowing for quicker intervention. "We could then test new prevention methods such as cardiovascular training, which reduces the risk of heart problems in adulthood," she adds.

Between two continents

Delphine Périé-Curnier developed her medical imagery expertise in France, the country of her birth, after doing a PhD in mechanical engineering and three postdoctoral fellowships in biomechanics at Queen's University, Sainte-Justine Hospital and the University of Vermont, and giving birth to her two children. "I completed this specialization straddling two continents, because I came back to Montréal to work as a professor at the Polytechnique," remarks the researcher, who also had to rewrite her engineering exams to obtain this professional title in Québec.

Today, she transmits to her students her theoretical knowledge acquired in Europe, along with her more practical training received in North America. But, above all, she offers young people a woman's perspective of the profession of mechanical engineer: she is one of only four women in her department of 40 professors!