How China's rice paddies sparked Zheng's interest in biomechanics

In the mid-1980s, Nigel Zheng helped design the first knee implant used in China. A graduate of Zhejiang University, he completed a Master of Medical Science from the College of Medicine at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

“We measured dimensions of human knee joint surfaces to design our first anatomic knee implant,” said Zheng. It was manufactured through a factory under the Ministry of Aerospace Industry.

Originally from the Zhejiang province, Zheng grew up working in rice fields. His hope was to design machines to help the farmers. When the country restored its higher education system in 1978, Zheng entered college to study engineering.

“Rice fields are muddy, and the rice often is bent from strong winds or typhoons,” he explained. “Farmers must bend their lower back with one hand holding up the rice to cut with the other.”

So for his senior engineering design project, Zheng developed a machine to mimic the movement of a rice farmer; his concept proved successful, and machines were manufactured and sold. More important, the experience sparked Zheng’s interest in the study of human movements and biomechanics. He completed a Ph.D. in biomechanical engineering from the University of Saskatchewan and was on the faculty at the University of Florida prior to joining UNC Charlotte.

As a graduate student in the College of Medicine, Zheng assisted in the treatment of more than a thousand paraplegic patients. He became intimately aware of their pain and suffering, and it furthered his desire to utilize his engineering background to design medical interventions.

“Any treatment that alleviates pain and suffering will give patients new hope and motivate them to live better, especially those who have endured for a long time,” said Zheng. “My hope is that my work and that of my students free patients from pain and restore a measure of their mobility so they can experience a better quality of life.”