Bio


Joseph Towles is a Lecturer jointly appointed in the Mechanical Engineering and Bioengineering Departments at Stanford University. Joe’s teaching interests are in the areas of solid mechanics, neuromuscular biomechanics, dynamical systems and control, and engineering design. His scholarship interest is in the area of engineering education. Specifically, Joe's engineering education activities include student-centric course and curricular development; assessment of student learning & engagement; and innovation in approaches to enhance student learning.

A Mechanical Engineer by training, Joe earned his BS degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Maryland Baltimore County and his MS and PhD degrees both in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University (1996-2003). Following graduate school, Joe was a research post-doctoral fellow and subsequently a research scientist and then a research assistant professor in neuromuscular biomechanics in the Sensory Motor Performance Program at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and in the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Department at Northwestern University (2003-2012). Additionally, Joe was a research health scientist for the Rehabilitation R&D Service in the Department of Veterans Affairs (Hines, IL) during that time and later a scientist in the neuromuscular biomechanics lab in the Mechanical Engineering Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (2012-2014). At the time, Joe led projects that addressed the broad question of how to restore hand function (ability to grasp objects) following cervical spinal cord injury and hemiparetic stroke using experimental and computational techniques in biomechanics. As a complement to teaching within the undergraduate and graduate curricula in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (2014-2018), and now teaching broadly within the undergraduate curricula of Mechanical Engineering and Bioengineering at Stanford, Joe's current scholarship interest has shifted to engineering education.

Academic Appointments


Boards, Advisory Committees, Professional Organizations


  • Member, Biomedical Engineering Society (2012 - Present)
  • Member, American Society for Engineering Education (2014 - Present)

Professional Education


  • PhD, Stanford University, Mechanical Engineering (2003)
  • MS, Stanford University, Mechanical Engineering (1998)
  • BS, University of Maryland Baltimore County, Mechanical Engineering (1996)

All Publications


  • Intervention designed to increase interest in engineering for low-interest, K-12 girls did so for boys and girls American Society for Engineering Education - Women in Engineering Division Acuna, S. A., Michaelis, J. E., Roth, J. D., Towles, J. D. 2018: https://peer.asee.org/30713
  • Impact of biomechanics-based activities on situational and individual interest among K-12 students American Society for Engineering Education - Biomedical Engineering Division Francis, C. A., Michaelis, J. E., Acuna, S. A., Towles, J. D. 2017: https://peer.asee.org/28459
  • Development of a Graduate Project Management Course Where Graduate Students Manage Undergraduate Biomedical Engineering Design Teams (Work in Progress) American Society for Engineering Education - Biomedical Engineering Division Towles, J., Davis, J. G., Frushour, B. 2017: https://peer.asee.org/27793
  • Work in Progress: Evaluation of Biomechanics Activities at a College-Wide Engineering Outreach Event American Society of Engineering Education - Biomedical Engineering Division Francis, C. A., Lenhart, R. L., Franz, J. R., Kaiser, J., Towles, J. 2016: https://peer.asee.org/27224
  • Fabric Force Sensors for the Clinical Breast Examination Simulator Laufer, S., Rasske, K., Stopfer, L., Kurzynski, C., Abbott, T., Platner, M., Towles, J., Pugh, C. M., Westwood, J. D., Westwood, S. W., FellanderTsai, L., Fidopiastis, C. M., Liu, A., Senger, S., Vosburgh, K. G. IOS PRESS. 2016: 193–98

    Abstract

    Sensor enabled simulators may help in training and assessing clinical skill. Their are imitations on the locations current sensors can be placed without interfering with the clinical examination. In this study novel fabric force sensors were developed and tested. These sensors are soft and flexible and undetectable when placed in different locations in the simulator. Five sensors were added to our current sensor enabled breast simulator. Eight participants performed the clinical breast examination on the simulator and documented their findings. There was a significant relationship for both clinical breast examination time (r(6) = 0.99, p < 0.001) and average force (r(6) = 0.92, p < 0.005) between our current sensors and the new fabric sensors. In addition the senors were not noticed by the participants. These new sensors provide new methods to measure and assess clinical skill and performance.

    View details for PubMedID 27046577

  • Multiaxis Grip Characteristics for Varying Handle Diameters and Effort HUMAN FACTORS Irwin, C. B., Towles, J. D., Radwin, R. G. 2015; 57 (2): 227–37

    Abstract

    A multiaxis dynamometer was used to quantify grip force vector angles and longitudinal centers of pressure (COPs) while varying handle size and effort used.Authors of many studies have examined maximum grip strength using scalar instruments; a few have measured two-axis forces limited to one or more finger contact. This novel dynamometer uses two instrumented beams that are grasped by the distal fingers and proximal palm to compute two orthogonal components of force and the longitudinal COP through which the force acts.Sixteen healthy, right-handed participants grasped the multiaxis dynamometer with plastic handles ranging in diameter from 3.81 to 7.62 cm. They were required to scale their effort to 25%, 50%, 75%, and 100% of maximum.Grip force vector angles were affected by both handle diameter and effort level, with angles increasing an average of 8.1° from the least to greatest effort. Longitudinal COP, averaged among the two beams, shifted 1.75 cm radially as handle diameter increased from 3.81 cm to 7.62 cm. Average COP along the beam in contact with the distal finger segments shifted 0.75 cm ulnarly as effort level increased from 25% to 100% of maximum.Grip force characteristics changed with handle diameter and effort level. Overall grip force magnitude comprised both force components measured.Understanding grip characteristics should be important for handle and grip design and for evaluating hand function.

    View details for PubMedID 25850154

    View details for PubMedCentralID PMC5742551

  • Finger-thumb coupling contributes to exaggerated thumb flexion in stroke survivors. Journal of neurophysiology Kamper, D. G., Fischer, H. C., Conrad, M. O., Towles, J. D., Rymer, W. Z., Triandafilou, K. M. 2014; 111 (12): 2665–74

    Abstract

    The purpose of this study was to investigate altered finger-thumb coupling in individuals with chronic hemiparesis poststroke. First, an external device stretched finger flexor muscles by passively rotating the metacarpophalangeal (MCP) joints. Subjects then performed isometric finger or thumb force generation. Forces/torques and electromyographic signals were recorded for both the thumb and finger muscles. Stroke survivors with moderate (n = 9) and severe (n = 9) chronic hand impairment participated, along with neurologically intact individuals (n = 9). Stroke survivors exhibited strong interactions between finger and thumb flexors. The stretch reflex evoked by stretch of the finger flexors of stroke survivors led to heteronymous reflex activity in the thumb, while attempts to produce isolated voluntary finger MCP flexion torque/thumb flexion force led to increased and undesired thumb force/finger MCP torque production poststroke with a striking asymmetry between voluntary flexion and extension. Coherence between the long finger and thumb flexors estimated using intermuscular electromyographic correlations, however, was small. Coactivation of thumb and finger flexor muscles was common in stroke survivors, whether activation was evoked by passive stretch or voluntary activation. The coupling appears to arise from subcortical or spinal sources. Flexor coupling between the thumb and fingers seems to contribute to undesired thumb flexor activity after stroke and may impact rehabilitation outcomes.

    View details for PubMedID 24671534

    View details for PubMedCentralID PMC6442660

  • Diminished capacity to modulate motor activation patterns according to task contributes to thumb deficits following stroke JOURNAL OF NEUROPHYSIOLOGY Triandafilou, K. M., Fischer, H. C., Towles, J. D., Kamper, D. G., Rymer, W. Z. 2011; 106 (4): 1644–51

    Abstract

    The objective of this study was to explore motor impairment of the thumb following stroke. More specifically, we quantitatively examined kinetic deficits of the thumb. We anticipated that force deficits would be nonuniformly distributed across the kinetic workspace, due in part to varying levels of difficulty in altering the motor activation pattern to meet the task. Eighteen stroke survivors with chronic hemiparesis participated in the trials, along with nine age-matched controls. Of the stroke-survivor group, nine subjects had moderate hand impairment, and the other nine subjects had severe hand impairment. Subjects were instructed to generate maximal isometric thumb-tip force, as measured with a load cell, in each of six orthogonal directions with respect to the thumb tip. Activity of three representative thumb muscles was monitored through intramuscular and surface electrodes. Univariate split-plot analysis of variance revealed that clinical impairment level had a significant effect on measured force (P < 0.001), with the severely impaired group producing only 13% of the control forces, and the moderately impaired group generating 32% of control forces, on average. Weakness in the moderately impaired group exhibited a dependence on force direction (P = 0.015), with the least-relative weakness in the medial direction. Electromyographic recordings revealed that stroke survivors exhibited limited modulation of thumb-muscle activity with intended force direction. The difference in activation presented by the control group for a given muscle was equal to 40% of its full activation range across force directions, whereas this difference was only 26% for the moderately impaired group and 15% for the severely impaired group. This diminished ability to modify voluntary activation patterns, which we observed previously in index-finger muscles as well, appears to be a primary factor in hand impairment following stroke.

    View details for PubMedID 21753022

  • Lack of Hypertonia in Thumb Muscles After Stroke JOURNAL OF NEUROPHYSIOLOGY Towles, J. D., Kamper, D. G., Rymer, W. Z. 2010; 104 (4): 2139–46

    Abstract

    Despite the importance of the thumb to hand function, little is known about the origins of thumb impairment poststroke. Accordingly, the primary purpose of this study was to assess whether thumb flexors have heightened stretch reflexes (SRs) following stroke-induced hand impairment. The secondary purpose was to compare SR characteristics of thumb flexors in relation to those of finger flexors since it is unclear whether SR properties of both muscle groups are similarly affected poststroke. Stretch reflexes in thumb and finger flexors were assessed at rest on the paretic side in each of 12 individuals with chronic, severe, stroke-induced hand impairment and in the dominant thumb in each of eight control subjects also at rest. Muscle activity and passive joint flexion torques were measured during imposed slow (SS) and fast stretches (FS) of the flexors that span the metacarpophalangeal joints. Putative spasticity was then quantified in terms of the peak difference between FS and SS joint torques and electromyographic changes. For both the hemiparetic and control groups, the mean normalized peak torque differences (PTDs) measured in thumb flexors were statistically indistinguishable (P = 0.57). In both groups, flexor muscles were primarily unresponsive to rapid stretching. For 10 of 12 hemiparetic subjects, PTDs in thumb flexors were less than those in finger flexors (P = 0.03). Paretic finger flexor muscle reflex activity was consistently elicited during rapid stretching. These results may reflect an important difference between thumb and finger flexors relating to properties of the involved muscle afferents and spinal motoneurons.

    View details for PubMedID 20668270

    View details for PubMedCentralID PMC2957448

  • Effect of finger posture on the tendon force distribution within the finger extensor mechanism JOURNAL OF BIOMECHANICAL ENGINEERING-TRANSACTIONS OF THE ASME Lee, S., Chen, H., Towles, J. D., Kamper, D. G. 2008; 130 (5): 051014

    Abstract

    Understanding the transformation of tendon forces into joint torques would greatly aid in the investigation of the complex temporal and spatial coordination of multiple muscles in finger movements. In this study, the effects of the finger posture on the tendon force transmission within the finger extensor apparatus were investigated. In five cadaver specimens, a constant force was applied sequentially to the two extrinsic extensor tendons in the index finger, extensor digitorum communis and extensor indicis proprius. The responses to this loading, i.e., fingertip force/moment and regional strains of the extensor apparatus, were measured and analyzed to estimate the tendon force transmission into the terminal and central slips of the extensor hood. Repeated measures analysis of variance revealed that the amount of tendon force transmitted to each tendon slip was significantly affected by finger posture, specifically by the interphalangeal (IP) joint angles (p<0.01). Tendon force transmitted to each of the tendon slips was found to decrease with the IP flexion. The main effect of the metacarpophalangeal (MCP) joint angle was not as consistent as the IP angle, but there was a strong interaction effect for which MCP flexion led to large decreases in the slip forces (>30%) when the IP joints were extended. The ratio of terminal slip force:central slip force remained relatively constant across postures at approximately 1.7:1. Force dissipation into surrounding structures was found to be largely responsible for the observed force-posture relationship. Due to the significance of posture in the force transmission to the tendon slips, the impact of finger posture should be carefully considered when studying finger motor control or examining injury mechanisms in the extensor apparatus.

    View details for PubMedID 19045521

  • Use of intrinsic thumb muscles may help to improve lateral pinch function restored by tendon transfer CLINICAL BIOMECHANICS Towles, J. D., Hentz, V. R., Murray, W. M. 2008; 23 (4): 387-394

    Abstract

    For surgical reconstruction of lateral pinch following tetraplegia, the function of the paralyzed flexor pollicis longus is commonly restored. The purpose of this study was to investigate if one of the intrinsic muscles could generate a more suitably directed thumb-tip force during lateral pinch than that of flexor pollicis longus.Endpoint force resulting from 10 N applied to each thumb muscle was measured in eleven upper extremity cadaveric specimens. We utilized the Kruskal-Wallis test (alpha=0.05) to determine whether thumb-tip forces of intrinsic muscles were less directed toward the base of the thumb, i.e., proximally directed, than the thumb-tip force produced by flexor pollicis longus. Additionally, a biomechanical model was used to assess the effect of an increase in tendon force on intrinsic muscle endpoint forces.All of the intrinsic muscles produced thumb-tip force vectors, ranging from 127 degrees to 156 degrees , that were significantly (P<0.009) less proximally directed than that of flexor pollicis longus (66 degrees (46 degrees )). A biomechanical model predicted that intrinsic muscle thumb-tip forces would vary non-linearly with tendon force. A 2-fold increase in tendon force produced, on average, a 2.3-fold increase in force magnitude and an 8 degrees shift in force direction across all intrinsic muscles.This study suggests the possibility of using an intrinsic muscle, e.g., the flexor pollicis brevis (ulnar head), instead of flexor pollicis longus, to produce a more advantageously directed thumb-tip force during lateral pinch in the surgically-reconstructed tetraplegic thumb and thus potentially enhance function.

    View details for DOI 10.1016/j.clinbiomech.2007.11.008

    View details for Web of Science ID 000255797300002

    View details for PubMedID 18180085

  • Estimation of the effective static moment arms of the tendons in the index finger extensor mechanism JOURNAL OF BIOMECHANICS Lee, S., Chen, H., Towles, J. D., Kamper, D. G. 2008; 41 (7): 1567–73

    Abstract

    A novel technique to estimate the contribution of finger extensor tendons to joint moment generation was proposed. Effective static moment arms (ESMAs), which represent the net effects of the tendon force on joint moments in static finger postures, were estimated for the 4 degrees of freedom (DOFs) in the index finger. Specifically, the ESMAs for the five tendons contributing to the finger extensor apparatus were estimated by directly correlating the applied tendon force to the measured resultant joint moments in cadaveric hand specimens. Repeated measures analysis of variance revealed that the finger posture, specifically interphalangeal joint angles, had significant effects on the measured ESMA values in 7 out of 20 conditions (four DOFs for each of the five muscles). Extensor digitorum communis and extensor indicis proprius tendons were found to have greater MCP ESMA values when IP joints are flexed, whereas abduction ESMAs of all muscles except extensor digitorum profundus were mainly affected by MCP flexion. The ESMAs were generally smaller than the moment arms estimated in previous studies that employed kinematic measurement techniques. Tendon force distribution within the extensor hood and dissipation into adjacent structures are believed to contribute to the joint moment reductions, which result in smaller ESMA values.

    View details for PubMedID 18387615

  • The effect of percutaneous pin fixation of the interphalangeal joint on the thumb-tip force produced by the flexor pollicis longus: A Cadaver study JOURNAL OF HAND SURGERY-AMERICAN VOLUME Towles, J. D., Murray, W. M., Hentz, V. R. 2004; 29A (6): 1056-1062

    Abstract

    Interphalangeal joint stabilization often is performed concomitantly with tendon transfers that restore key pinch (lateral pinch) to the paralyzed thumb. The goal of this study was to measure the effect of interphalangeal joint stabilization via percutaneous pin fixation on the thumb-tip force produced by the flexor pollicis longus (FPL).We applied 10 N of force to the tendon of the FPL in 7 cadaveric specimens and measured the resulting thumb-tip force in the intact thumb and after stabilization of the interphalangeal joint.The nominal thumb-tip force was approximately 6 times less than the applied force and was directed primarily in the thumb's plane of flexion-extension at an oblique angle of 44 degrees relative to the palmar direction (the direction that is perpendicular to the thumb tip in the plane). Joint stabilization increased significantly the nominal force and oriented the force more toward the palmar direction (ie, decreased the obliqueness of the force).After paralysis and a tendon transfer to the paralyzed FPL the FPL is often the only muscle actuating the thumb. We conclude that the oblique nominal force direction is prone to cause the thumb to slip during pinch. Joint stabilization, however, has the capacity to reduce the tendency for slippage because it rotates the force toward the palmar direction.

    View details for DOI 10.1016/j.jhsa.2004.07.005

    View details for Web of Science ID 000225518200011

  • The effect of percutaneous pin fixation of the interphalangeal joint on the thumb-tip force produced by the flexor pollicis longus: a cadaver study. journal of hand surgery Towles, J. D., Murray, W. M., Hentz, V. R. 2004; 29 (6): 1056-1062

    Abstract

    Interphalangeal joint stabilization often is performed concomitantly with tendon transfers that restore key pinch (lateral pinch) to the paralyzed thumb. The goal of this study was to measure the effect of interphalangeal joint stabilization via percutaneous pin fixation on the thumb-tip force produced by the flexor pollicis longus (FPL).We applied 10 N of force to the tendon of the FPL in 7 cadaveric specimens and measured the resulting thumb-tip force in the intact thumb and after stabilization of the interphalangeal joint.The nominal thumb-tip force was approximately 6 times less than the applied force and was directed primarily in the thumb's plane of flexion-extension at an oblique angle of 44 degrees relative to the palmar direction (the direction that is perpendicular to the thumb tip in the plane). Joint stabilization increased significantly the nominal force and oriented the force more toward the palmar direction (ie, decreased the obliqueness of the force).After paralysis and a tendon transfer to the paralyzed FPL the FPL is often the only muscle actuating the thumb. We conclude that the oblique nominal force direction is prone to cause the thumb to slip during pinch. Joint stabilization, however, has the capacity to reduce the tendency for slippage because it rotates the force toward the palmar direction.

    View details for PubMedID 15576215

  • Towards a realistic biomechanical model of the thumb: the choice of kinematic description may be more critical than the solution method or the variability/uncertainty of musculoskeletal parameters JOURNAL OF BIOMECHANICS Valero-Cuevas, F. J., Johanson, M. E., Towles, J. D. 2003; 36 (7): 1019–30

    Abstract

    A biomechanical model of the thumb can help researchers and clinicians understand the clinical problem of how anatomical variability contributes to the variability of outcomes of surgeries to restore thumb function. We lack a realistic biomechanical model of the thumb because of the variability/uncertainty of musculoskeletal parameters, the multiple proposed kinematic descriptions and methods to solve the muscle redundancy problem, and the paucity of data to validate the model with in vivo coordination patterns and force output. We performed a multi-stage validation of a biomechanical computer model against our measurements of maximal static thumbtip force and fine-wire electromyograms (EMG) from 8 thumb muscles in each of five orthogonal directions in key and opposition pinch postures. A low-friction point-contact at the thumbtip ensured that subjects did not produce thumbtip torques during force production. The 3-D, 8-muscle biomechanical thumb model uses a 5-axis kinematic description with orthogonal and intersecting axes of rotation at the carpometacarpal and metacarpophalangeal joints. We represented the 50 musculoskeletal parameters of the model as stochastic variables based on experimental data, and ran Monte Carlo simulations in the "inverse" and "forward" directions for 5000 random instantiations of the model. Two inverse simulations (predicting the distribution of maximal static thumbtip forces and the muscle activations that maximized force) showed that: the model reproduces at most 50% of the 80 EMG distributions recorded (eight muscle excitations in 5 force directions in two postures); and well-directed thumbtip forces of adequate magnitude are predicted only if accompanied by unrealistically large thumbtip torques (0.64+/-0.28Nm). The forward simulation (which fed the experimental distributions of EMG through random instantiations of the model) resulted in misdirected thumbtip force vectors (within 74.3+/-24.5 degrees from the desired direction) accompanied by doubly large thumbtip torques (1.32+/-0.95Nm). Taken together, our results suggest that the variability and uncertainty of musculoskeletal parameters and the choice of solution method are not the likely reason for the unrealistic predictions obtained. Rather, the kinematic description of the thumb we used is not representative of the transformation of net joint torques into thumbtip forces/torques in the human thumb. Future efforts should focus on validating alternative kinematic descriptions of the thumb.

    View details for DOI 10.1016/S0021-9290(03)00061-7

    View details for Web of Science ID 000183567400015

    View details for PubMedID 12757811