In more ways than one, Dr. Anton Bowden is a mechanical engineering professor who’s “got your back.” He’s been changing lives — and more specifically spines — for the better in the biomedical engineering industry, the lab and the classroom for over 20 years.
Seven small businesses, 17 issued patents in the United States, and several international patents have all come from technologies developed in Bowden’s lab at Brigham Young University. They are currently working on a wearable sensor system (in collaboration with Dr. Fullwood in mechanical engineering and Dr. Mitchell in exercise science) to identify the source of back pain in a far more cost efficient way than a CT scan or MRI.
The North Ogden native was first drawn to engineering by stories told by his AP Physics teacher, who was an engineer.
“I just loved that he was doing things with science and math that were producing real products, making things fit and solving real problems,” Bowden said.
After that moment, Dr. Bowden had his sights set on the sky. When he began his undergraduate degree at Utah State University (USU), Dr. Bowden dreamt of building the next space shuttle, and was studying space engineering to make that dream a reality — until his senior Capstone project. Designing a thermal electric cooling pad to cool the knee after a knee replacement introduced Dr. Bowden to biomedical engineering, and his whole world shifted.
“It was the coolest thing that I'd ever come across,” Bowden shared. “Our actual Capstone project was of moderate importance, but it got me really excited about doing things that intersect with and directly impact people's lives.”
Despite feeling burnt out after his undergraduate experience and having done nothing to prepare him for going into biomedical engineering, he enrolled as a bioengineering graduate student at the University of Utah.
“As I started graduate school, it was different; I was much more focused on research and problems,” Bowden said. “I felt like I was a real engineer, but I was also learning about how to communicate effectively and how to organize myself.”
Within that first year of being a master's student, Dr. Bowden knew he wanted a PhD. His introduction to the spine began with research during his graduate program, and that led to the design of devices for spine function when he started working in the industry at Exponent in Philadelphia.
Helping people by solving problems related to chronic lower back pain was something he realized he could spend his entire career on. He was offered a position at a mid-sized medical device company, but the future had something very different in store for Bowden. A position opening at BYU brought him from the industry back to the classroom.
“I took a chance on this and have loved it ever since. Being a professor was daunting at first, but I’ve found that I really enjoy the parts that I thought would be really hard, and I loved the teaching part even more than I could have imagined,” Bowden said. “By becoming a professor, I get a chance not just to focus on innovation in what can be done in the next year or two, but to think about what problems we should attack over the next 10 to 20 years. That's been really fun because that's where the most interesting problems are to me — the ones that are a little beyond what we can see right now.”
The rest of the Bowden family is making their way to BYU as well. Dr. Bowden’s wife received her PhD in exercise physiology here and is now an adjunct faculty member, and two of their four children are current engineering students. His wife’s area of research is in exercise physiology related to the spine, so the couple have also had the unique opportunity to collaborate together on publications.
His love for teaching came from a love of learning. Although Bowden was the first in his family to finish college, his parents instilled in him and his siblings a love for learning that led to all six of his siblings getting degrees as well.
Bowden found parallels between his old and new interests. When he was a sophomore in mechanical engineering at USU, he learned that the angles for the composite windings on the booster rockets for a shuttle are approximately 30 degrees. He learned later that the spinal disc is built the exact same way to contain massive pressures.
Although Bowden has many role models, he’s learned in his years in the field that Heavenly Father is the best engineer, and the way the individual pieces in our body work is evidence of His master engineering.
“Studying the work of this amazing engineer and how He put our bodies together gives us such incredible insights, not just into the engineering, but into the love and mastery and attention that this amazing Being put into designing us,” Bowden shared. “When He designed this world around us, including us, He put a really high priority on the things that he created and designed. They're important to him, and he follows them through to make sure they turn out well. It's an inspiration to me.”
Despite how difficult engineering can get and how much effort it will take to succeed, Dr. Bowden advises hanging on; getting through the program is worth it because of the opportunity to do things that others can’t do.
“The art of engineering is the art of seeing into the future,” Bowden said. “It's designing things that you can predict the performance of, which is very different from a guess and check methodology. It takes a deep understanding of things, and sometimes other majors don't go that deep. It takes time and energy, but it is so worth it in the end.”