Faces of Cedars-Sinai: Melodie Metzger, Director of Orthopaedics Biomechanics Laboratory
Aug 30, 2021 Victoria Pelham
For more than a decade, Melodie Metzger has been the anchor of research improving joint implants and surgical techniques at Cedars-Sinai, studying the human body from head to toe.
In her time at the helm of the Orthopaedic Biomechanics Laboratory (the Metzger Lab), she's watched the field grow dramatically and overseen pivotal projects that have driven sports medicine forward.
"It keeps me on my feet," she says.
While biomechanical engineering has roots all the way back to Galileo—and in the modern world is constantly evolving to keep pace with medical advances—it's in the everyday that Metzger tends to find the most inspiration.
We talked to the Midwest-raised researcher about what sparks her ideas and sets her in motion, encouraging women in science and why it can be challenging to watch her sons skateboard.
"Any time I can encourage more women into orthopaedics or engineering is a big achievement."
What propels you to keep innovating?
Melodie Metzger: This spring, I was supposed to go on a group backpacking trip in the Sierras to honor a friend's late mother, who was a big backpacker. But we had to cancel the trip suddenly because of my friend's hip injury. I quickly realized the research we're doing in the lab applied.
She had an arthroscopy performed to treat a hip impingement, and her surgeon didn't repair the supporting hip capsule or cartilage, which they had damaged in the surgery. We're currently doing research in the lab to demonstrate the long-term importance of these hip structures and restoring them after arthroscopy.
Much of our work is immediately clinically relevant, where we conduct studies to answer surgeons' questions of which device or procedure will have the best outcome.
The trip is on hold for now, while my friend's hip and tissue damage are repaired. Hopefully some of our work will contribute to that.
What is your goal in the lab?
MM: Our body has certain flows and motions that it's used to. If people break or tear their bone, muscle, ligament or tendon—or something happens where they need a replacement, repair or reconstruction surgery—we want to fix it in a way that most naturally matches their body and its rhythms, so they last longer. If there is a mismatch, that causes things to break down sooner and can lead to arthritis over time.
Biomechanical engineering studies the movement of biological systems. Why did you choose this field?
MM: I was always really good at math and numbers, so I started on the path of being an engineer. Right around the time I began the undergraduate structural engineering program at the University of California, Berkeley, the school created a new bioengineering program. The fact that you can engineer the human body was just fascinating to me. So, I switched majors to bioengineering and have been there ever since.
I chose biomechanics more specifically because it's sports medicine. It correlates with a lot of my interests personally. When I was in graduate school, I won two collegiate national titles in cyclocross, similar to steeplechase but with bicycles. When I graduated, I continued bike racing until I got pregnant with my first child.
Can you tell me more about the new women-led study you're spearheading?
MM: Women tear their anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) at a much higher rate than men. It's something we know, but the reason behind that is just starting to be developed. One culprit might be hormones, which could make our ligaments more flexible at certain times of the month. That's not a good thing if you're counting on those ligaments at a sporting event.
We paired up with the OB-GYN Department to look at whether adjusting hormones through oral contraceptives can lower women's risk by reducing fluctuations in hormones. We'll be studying female athletes at local universities, including Pepperdine.
What are you most proud of?
MM: I have a lot of moments I'm proud of, but a few years ago, I had a high school student in my lab. I was a little concerned, because she was younger and less experienced than the typical medical or undergraduate student intern, but she was amazing. She was so inspired by the work she did in lab that she ended up switching her major and going into engineering. She's now at Columbia.
If you look at all surgical specialties, orthopaedics has the lowest rate of women (less than 10%). Any time I can encourage more women into orthopaedics or engineering is a big achievement.
How do you relax in your free time?
MM: My sons, who are 6 and 10, are extremely active and keep me on my toes. We do a lot of activities together: bike rides, snowboarding, camping, skateboarding—L.A. is a great place to live if you're a skateboarder.
They're amazing, athletically gifted boys, but it's gut-wrenching to watch them jump off stairs and rails, knowing what I know about the forces that cause orthopaedic injuries.
At home, we have a pandemic puppy named Muggsy, chickens and a garden that the boys and I take care of. On the weekends I also like to hike—and going for a bike ride along the beach is still one of my favorite things.