Distinguished Alumnus World Leader in Biomechanical Engineering Research

Rick Neptune receives 2023 Distinguished Engineering Alumni Medal for outstanding achievements and contributions to the engineering field 

Rick Neptune

"Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might." 

Richard Neptune '91, M.S. '93, Ph.D. '96 has sought to live by this Bible verse from Ecclesiastes throughout his career as a mechanical engineer, which began at the University of California, Davis, where he earned his three degrees in mechanical engineering. His contributions to the field of engineering and his mentorship of future engineers have led to him receiving a 2023 Distinguished Engineering Alumni Medal, or DEAM.  

Neptune has focused his hands and mechanical engineering acumen on studying human movement through simulations and modeling — for which he is considered a world leader — and designing orthotic and prosthetic components to improve the quality of life for people with mobility issues, including military veterans and those who have suffered strokes.   

The seeds for his interest in mechanical engineering as it relates to the human body were planted and sown during Neptune's undergraduate and graduate work according to Maury Hull, professor emeritus of biomedical engineering, who nominated Neptune for the DEAM award and served as Neptune's supervisor for all three of his theses at UC Davis.  

For his bachelor's thesis, Neptune, who cites Hull as by far his favorite professor at the university ("His classes were always hard, but he was very fair and very entertaining. I always looked forward to going to class."), designed, created, and tested a novel electromechanical releasable binding to help prevent injuries in skiers.  

Neptune's master's degree and Ph.D. involved the three-dimensional analysis of hip movement during seated pedaling and the simulation of body movement during upright pedaling, respectively.  

Following postdoctoral research positions at the University of Calgary and the Rehabilitation R & D Center at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System, Neptune became an assistant professor in 2001 at the University of Texas at Austin, where he has served on the faculty for the past two decades as a professor, and as the William and Bettye Nowlin Chair in Engineering from 2016–2021.  

During his professorship, Neptune contributed to the field of engineering through his research and development of prosthetics. One project with the Department of Veteran Affairs Center of Excellence for Limb Loss Prevention and Prosthetic Engineering in Seattle and the San Antonio Military Medical Center's Center for the Intrepid involved designing custom ankle-foot orthotic devices for veterans with lost limbs.   

His work has earned him numerous accolades, including a CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation and the Van C. Mow Medal from the American Society of Biomechanics. He earned a Founders Award from the American Society of Biomechanics in 2017, was named a fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 2019, and this year was awarded the Jim Hay Memorial Award from the American Society of Biomechanics.  

For his teaching, UT Austin recognized Neptune with a Professor of Excellence award in 2012, the Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company Award for Excellence in Engineering Teaching in 2015, and an honorary mechanical engineering degree from the school's Mechanical Engineering Academy of Distinguished Alumni in 2020.   

Neptune has authored or co-authored more than 160 peer-reviewed papers and continues to publish his research, having been cited over 19,000 times. His most recent co-authored papers investigate how things like foot placement and step width influence walking in healthy young adults.  

In nominating Neptune for this award, Maury Hull had this to say about his one-time student-turned-high-impact researcher:  

"Dr. Neptune has made distinguished contributions to biomechanical engineering research. As a result, he enjoys the stature as one of the leading researchers worldwide in the modeling and simulation of human movement. Dr. Neptune is a credit to the UC Davis College of Engineering and most deserving of this honor."  

Distinguished Engineering Alumni Medal (DEAM)

Outstanding alumni are selected as Distinguished Engineering Alumni Medal, or DEAM, recipients every other year. DEAM recipients are recognized for having a record of outstanding achievement in business, academia and/or public service, making substantial contributions to the UC Davis community, and having at least 10 years of professional experience.  

The college's 2023 DEAM recipients will be recognized at an Alumni Celebration, which will take place at the Walter A. Buehler Alumni Center at UC Davis on Thursday, November 2.

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