"I like doing this work because you can see the direct impact it can have. The doctors need to know this and it will change how they do surgery. That's very exciting for the students and for me."

In cases of severe injury to a leg or arm, surgeons sometimes use external fixators, which are devices that are fitted to the outside of a limb and attached by pins to bone fragments. External fixation allows bones to have stability as they heal and patients to regain mobility more quickly. While the procedure is well known and widely used, doctors at Geisinger Medical Center have asked Professor Sarah Manoogian, mechanical engineering, to answer questions that would improve the procedure.

Manoogian is working with two undergraduates to figure out how to measure the temperature at the bone-screw interface. She explains, "If the temperature gets too high when you put screws in to set a fracture, the bone around the screw dies." If the bone dies, the screw becomes loose and the bone won't set the way it is supposed to. Currently, surgeons choose to hand-tighten the screws instead of using a drill because they have no way of knowing the internal temperatures. 

Once Manoogian and her students figure out how to measure the temperature at the bone-screw interface, they will be able to consider variable factors like the size of the screw or which bone is being stabilized. All of this information will give doctors the context they need to make surgery more efficient and still keep the temperature below the cut-off level. 

Professor Manoogian believes it is important for students to apply the theory they learn. She says they build confidence as engineers by coming up with new ideas. "I want them to feel creative," she explains, "There aren't any limitations. If they have this great idea they should pursue it. If we go down this path and it doesn't work, we'll go down another one. They don't realize how much they know and how fresh eyes on something like this really helps." 

Biomechanics and injury have been the focus of Manoogian's research career, which has moved from analyzing data used to examine head acceleration and helmets to tissue testing used to assess risk for pregnant women in cars. This new project gets at the heart of applied engineering. She says, "I like doing this work because you can see the direct impact it can have. The doctors need to know this and it will change how they do surgery. That's very exciting for the students and for me." 

Posted October 10, 2013

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