Innovator Braces for Challenges

Inspired by a Tar Heel Footprint

Glenys Thorstenson makes people smile for a living. She had always been interested in medicine, but knew she didn't want to go to medical school. It took Thorstenson several different paths to find her way to orthodontics.

As an undergraduate at Michigan State University, Thorstenson wanted to be a veterinarian. After spending some time as a volunteer at a veterinary facility, though, she realized that wasn't what she wanted to do as a career. “The day-to-day routine was too monotonous for me,” she says. “I wanted something I could get excited about every day.”

Glenys Thorstenson

Glenys Thorstenson

Thorstenson was involved in a biomedical engineering project during her undergraduate years, and chose to study the strength of bone in the iliac crest for her senior thesis. In order to harvest pieces of the crest from cadavers for spinal surgeries, doctors would have to make sure the bone is strong enough. The Michigan Tissue Bank asked her group to develop an instrument that would help with that determination. After that project, Thorstenson knew she wanted to do her life's work in biomedical engineering.

“I find how the body works to be absolutely fascinating,” she says. “I wanted to be involved in the study of the human body.”

This interest is what brought her to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1997. After finishing up her undergraduate degree at Michigan State, Thorstenson entered a PhD program at Carolina. She applied to a number of schools, she explained, but UNC-Chapel Hill was everything she wanted in a program. “It offered a diverse perspective on biomedical engineering and had the specialty areas I was looking for,” she says. She was excited about how the basic training she would receive would expose her to a broad range of her interests.

Furthermore, Thorstenson was fresh from undergraduate, and the funding UNC-Chapel Hill offered her was too good to pass up. She received a full fellowship for the first three years of her five and a half years to come to Carolina and do her research. After those three years she worked as a teaching assistant for a biomedical engineering lab of senior undergraduates and first-year graduate students.

Her first big research project at UNC-Chapel Hill was to work with Robert Kusy from biomedical engineering to develop miniature heart sensors to be used on mice for other research labs. The pair hit a wall when the results of their work could never be replicated. “The project tanked,” Thorstenson says. “Dr. Kusy told me I could spend the next five years banging my head against the wall, trying to make it work, or I could work on another project.”

Thorstenson took the advice of her respected mentor to heart, and chose the latter option.

“Dr. Kusy told me I could spend the next five years banging my head against the wall, trying to make it work, or I could work on another project.”

Her next project is something she is still invested in today. Thorstenson is looking into novel bracket design for braces, mainly self-ligating brackets. The technology eliminates the step of elastics or ligature wire on braces and reduces friction so that teeth move faster. This was the project that Thorstenson used for six papers, her thesis, and eventually her career. She also received partial funding from an orthodontic sponsor at the end of her time as a doctoral candidate to do this research.

Thorstenson explained that orthodontics is a slow-moving profession, and dental professionals aren't quick to adopt the new technologies. Plus, the self-ligating brackets she's developing at 3M Unitek eliminate the plastic bands around each bracket—something she considered a benefit that unexpectedly turned into a hindrance. “Less kids want them because they don't have elastics!” she explains. “It's their favorite part—they like to change the colors for holidays and seasons.”

Since she began working for 3M Unitek just a few months after earning her PhD, Thorstenson has helped develop multiple versions of the self-ligating brackets including metal and ceramic versions. Today she works in the Lean Six Sigma department leading a product development team and working on cost-saving projects. Taking on her new leadership position, Thorstenson continues to use her research and general knowledge she collected at Carolina. She enjoys the work she does, and likes the idea that she helps beautify the world, one smile at a time.

♦ Cindy J. Austin