Genie in a Classroom


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When you talk about medical miracles, you may envision veteran medical doctors spending years in research labs. But what you may not think of are college students. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Precision Machine/Medical Device Design course is out to change that, one creation at a time.

“The idea is that we’re good at innovation in academia, which companies aren’t always good at,” says Nevan Hanumara, a postdoctoral associate who runs the course along with Prof. Alex Slocum, his former advisor. “We can innovate no-holds-barred and, because we’re not so much a part of their industry, we can find things through asking the deeper questions.”

In terms of finding appropriate medical partners, he says, many local clinicians would like to do their job better and are humble enough to admit that. “We weed out the pompous doctors because we want people who will take a call to answer a question and are patient when it comes to helping us understand what they need,” he says. “For students, it’s a great opportunity. They even many times get their first paper or conference trip out of this.”

Once a device is picked, students take the time to brainstorm and come up with project strategies. It proceeds to morph into detailed specification, followed by actual design and testing. “In the second semester,” he says, “if it’s decided to continue, then it’s time for polishing and productization.” This is helped by Center members such as Hanumara providing oversight. “Students are seniors and grad students so we expect high performance,” he says. “We’re project managers guiding them through the design process and helping them to find resources. We’re reviewing their work but not forcing them to make assigned decisions, because that’s for their team to do.”

Prototype of the endoscopic screw driver. Image: MIT.edu

Two Innovations

One notable invention that came out of the initiative was a thoracoscopic screw driver. “When you prepare cracked ribs they strap a patient. If it’s not working then they do surgery by cutting open the front of the patient through chest muscle,” he says. “But that means you’re doing surgery, you’re putting a reinforcing plate in.” An alternative the invention created was to go through the back by collapsing the lung, grabbing an angle, making the necessary holes, and putting the screw in with this specialized screwdriver.” The team went on to create housing to keep the tool from “flopping around” and eventually licensed it to a company.

Another memorable innovation was the sleep-sensing shirt. “In sleep studies, they have sensors monitoring you and they stick you in a foreign bed but most clinicians at the end of the study still were doing manual scoring,” he says. “If you’re just getting a sleep score, one sensor or one signal that you could measure might be sufficient.” The shirt, he says, can fill in by looking at respiration with signal processing and filtering. “And it doesn’t have to be tight. It’s a comfortable shirt.”

Future Goals

One of the top goals for the center is to gain more sponsors, hopefully leading to a higher percentage of participating students becoming hires. Hanumara excitedly talks about one graduate, now working for surgical company Ethicon, who will be coming back to the school to talk about her experiences. “Many students want to work with medical devices in their careers,” he says. “There’s so much potential here to build this out.”

Eric Butterman is an independent writer.

"Many students want to work with medical devices in their careers. There’s so much potential here to build this out."

Nevan Hanumara, MIT

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March 2013

by Eric Butterman, ASME.org