October 08, 2018, BY Matt Hughes

Zane Patterson '22 is just beginning his Bucknell education, but he's already becoming an expert on a device that could improve medical rehabilitation programs nationwide.

In a few weeks, researchers at Geisinger's Department of Orthopaedic Surgery in Danville, Pa., will begin using the device Patterson is helping develop in a research study of patients with leg injuries. While other Bucknell projects have earned patents and assisted in training physicians, the device will be the first created by biomedical engineering students to be deployed in a clinical research setting.

Together with his teammates, the first-year student biomedical engineering major from Mifflinburg, Pa., is discovering that when you create something that solves an important problem, people take you seriously — even when you're only 17 years old.

Improving Medical Care
Their project stems from a real question from a medical professional. Dr. Daniel Horwitz, an orthopedic surgeon at Geisinger, was regularly asked to clear patients recovering from right-leg injuries to resume driving, but beyond watching them walk, he had no direct way of determining when they could safely get behind the wheel again.

Zane Patterson ’22 (left) and Tony Song ’20 are continuing work with the device this semester with Professor Eric Kennedy. Photo by Emily Paine, Communications

In 2016, Horwitz teamed with Professor Eric Kennedy, biomedical engineering, to search for a better method, supported by a Bucknell Geisinger Research Initiative grant. They set out to design a simulator that would offer a more reliable indication of a patient's readiness to drive than, for example, lifting weights on a leg press, by more precisely replicating the range of motion and pressure a driver must exert while braking in an emergency. Students Phil Amarante '18 and Ridhi Sahani '18 joined the project in 2017 as an independent research experience, and late last year Tony Song '20 and Graeme Bazarian '20 picked up where they left off, continuing development as a summer research project.

Toward the end of the summer, Patterson began helping Bazarian and Song collect baseline data from Bucknell students, faculty and staff. He had first encountered Kennedy as a high school student when he attended Bucknell's annual Engineering Camp, and later sat in on one of his classes through the University's Day in the Life Program.

"I thought that if I ended up coming here, I wanted to do research with him," Patterson said.

The project has pushed the students to bring together many of the skills they've learned in Bucknell classrooms. Bazarian, a biomedical engineering major from Wilbraham, Mass., designed the simulator's frame with the computer program SolidWorks. Seeing the rig come together in steel was a special experience for the engineer-in-training.

"I've made smaller things that were 3D printed, but it was a lot cooler to see a much bigger product I designed actually be manufactured and be usable," he said.  

The device measures how quickly and with how much force patients can hit the brake when the light turns red. Photo by Emily Paine, Communications

Strides and Setbacks
It's also given the students practical know-how that can only been gained through experience. Setting up the simulator's data collection computer required Song and Bazarian to teach themselves a new programming language, for instance, and they learned a different lesson the hard way, thanks to an initial blunder in installing the simulator's braking system.

"We thought we could use hydraulic fluid instead of brake fluid because it's less corrosive," Bazarian explained. "It ended up destroying the seals. The brake lines kept leaking, and we had to replace the entire thing. It definitely helped me learn problem-solving skills."

Later this month, Song and Bazarian will share the insights they've gained from the project with the medical community at the Biomedical Engineering Society's annual meeting, one of the industry's most important events. Eventually, the team hopes their device can either be deployed at rehab centers across the country or lead to better guidelines for clearing patients to drive based on factors like age and injury type. The students said they're already impressed at how far the project has come so quickly.

"When I first started the project, I didn't think it would be the first machine that goes to the clinic," said Song, a biomedical engineering major from Beijing. "It's really exciting to see the machine that we put our effort into actually make a difference to people. I also feel responsibility for the patients and doctors who'll be using it."