May 09, 2011

Biomedical engineering seniors displayed design projects at an expo on the last day of classes.

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By Julia Ferrante

LEWISBURG, Pa. - When he wasn't racking up points on the basketball court on the road to the NCAA tournament this year, Bucknell University senior G.W. Boon was working with his biomedical engineering classmates to develop groundbreaking medical devices.

The guard-forward on the Bison's Patriot League championship team balanced his passion for hoops with his drive to discover new and innovative ways of solving medical problems - a skill he hopes will lead to a career in sports-related biomechanics.

"I would like to study biomechanics and the forces and motions in the body," said Boon, who is considering offers from graduate schools as well as the possibility of playing professional basketball oversees after he graduates May 22. "Eventually, I want to study what happens in sports-related injuries and work on developing devices to treat those injuries." 

Interdisciplinary training
Bucknell's biomedical engineering majors are trained to explore a variety of technical disciplines such as electrical and mechanical engineering with an emphasis on biomedical applications, in preparation for a range of careers, said Joe Tranquillo, an assistant professor of biomedical and electrical engineering. As a graduation requirement, all engineering majors are required to complete senior design projects, which they displayed this past week at design expos on campus.

Bucknell's biomedical engineers partner with surgeons and other professionals at Geisinger Medical Center and work with faculty mentors to develop cutting-edge medical devices to solve real-world problems. The collaborative projects were supported by a Keystone Innovation Grant, which Bucknell and Geisinger jointly received from the State of Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.

The students focus on all aspects of the design process from conceiving the ideas to designing prototypes and testing and trouble-shooting them. In the past, the hospital has pursued patents and intellectual property rights to further develop some of the projects.

"Like all biomedical engineers, our students will have an enormous diversity of technical skills," Tranquillo said. "What sets them apart is they will speak the language of the medical community and be able to look for and solve real clinical problems."

High-tech design
Boon worked with classmates Megan Long and Kelsey Wiggin and Geisinger otolaryngologist Dr. Barbara Kreel to devise an arterial sensor to prevent major complications during tonsillectomies. The device, which would need to be further developed before it could be used in the medical world, uses an ultrasound sensor to detect whether the surgeon's instruments are too close to major arteries.

"As part of the instructions of the assignment, the students were supposed to treat the project as if I employed them," Kreel said. "They sent me regular reports and pictures, and we had phone conferences. I learned a tremendous amount about the mechanics of the process from them."

Tiny bubbles, big problems
Students Ben Geib, Rachel Morris and Gar Waterman worked with anesthesiologist Dr. Mark Poler on a device to remove tiny bubbles from tubing used in cardiopulmonary bypass operations. The students explored several design iterations for the device, which is intended to prevent complications such as long-term cognitive damage, before settling on a mechanism with plastic tubing and chambers to isolate the bubbles.

"These bubbles are 40/1,000ths of a millimeter, or about four times the size of red blood cells," Geib said. "The theory behind the device is that no matter how small the bubbles are, if you give them enough time, they will rise to the tubing. Once they rise to the top of the tubing, we can separate them out."

Aside from refining an idea into a functioning device, the students learned a tough lesson about how to turn a project around, said Waterman, who will work in a research lab at Pennsylvania State University after graduation. After pursuing another idea that turned out not to be feasible, the students shifted their focus.

"We basically had to switch projects midyear," he said. "We had to keep hammering away to find a solution when it really didn't seem like there was one."

Finding stability
Students Callie Riedel, Andrew Burkholder and Stephanie Bost worked with cardiologist Dr. James Blankenship on a device to stabilize catheters during radial artery catheterization. The design process taught the students to consider doctor and patient needs. They also had to find materials for snap clips, pivot joints and a telescoping arm that are compatible with the human body.

"This process and learning how to design intricate components confirmed the idea that I want to do this for the rest of my life," said Bost, who plans to pursue a master's in biomedical engineering at Cornell University.

Consistent pressure
Eileen Foley, Elliot Franz and Alex Iwaskiw worked with Dr. Marcus Reidhammer, a wound care specialist, to craft "The Pressure-Stik," a wand to measure the pressure applied by compression wraps to treat venous leg ulcers.

"One of the problems with compression therapy is that it is difficult to get a good, consistent pressure," Reidhammer said. "I see a need for a device like this to make it more consistent. It could be used to train nurses."

Iwaskiw, who will begin a job in biomedical research and development at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab after graduation, said the design process required collaboration with electrical and mechanical engineers and experts in Bucknell's Product Development Lab.

"It was analogous to how teams function in the working world," he said. "Each of us had specific skills and the device was the sum of those parts."

Seeing the light
Students Rushtin Chaklader, Dan Marsteller and Nathan Wolf worked with Drs. Doug Kupas and Timothy Vollmer to create a lighted intubation device to ensure the endotracheal tube is inserted into the trachea rather than the esophagus. The device, which looks like a tube with a light on the end, is more complex than it appears, Chaklader said.

"This combines the features of some devices that are already on the market into one device that should be faster and more efficient," said Chaklader, who plans to pursue a master's in aerospace engineering at the University of Maryland. "Because everything is in millimeter scale, we had to find switches, wiring and batteries that fit within a 6.5 millimeter diameter."

Exploring solutions
Steve Christensen, a director in Geisinger Ventures, an entrepreneurial division of the medical group, said the design process is an opportunity for the students and surgeons to explore ideas in a new way.

"The projects are great in their approach to solving a problem in a novel way," he said. "The students are not encumbered by the way things are always done. From an academic perspective, every single one of these projects is a success. For the physicians, it allows them to explore a solution to problems they face every day."

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