Clinical observation adds rigor, real-world design constraints to BME graduate studies

By Eric Tang, PhD candidate Department of Biomedical Engineering

It was midsummer as I stood out on the docks, dehydrated, covered in mosquito bites, but still motivated to complete my project, which involved constructing a raft to hold blue crabs while studying their development. By the end of my time at a marine lab, I had a makeshift raft built from spare plywood and inflatable tubes, though half of my blue crabs had escaped. While some might see this as a failure, I still view the process as a foundational experience that foreshadowed the ups and downs of doctoral research.

As I continued undergraduate studies, my interests shifted toward the medical aspects of my major, biomedical engineering. I joined another lab and began work on a project to develop a handheld probe to image circulating tumor cells in patients with melanoma. I was introduced to the rigorous design constraints of translational research, which made the project significantly more challenging—but simultaneously more rewarding— than designing a raft for blue crabs.

In coming to the Vanderbilt School of Engineering for graduate studies, I wanted to continue translational work, which led me to join the Diagnostic Imaging and Image-Guided Interventions Laboratory under Dr. Kenny Tao, assistant professor of biomedical engineering. My current project focuses on developing image-guidance tools to improve visualization of ophthalmic microsurgery in hopes of improving surgical outcomes for patients who have lost vision though diseases such as diabetic retinopathy and macular degeneration. Through a collaboration with the Vanderbilt Institute for Surgery and Engineering, I joined the T32 training program, which bridges the gap between the engineering and clinical sides of translational research with clinical observation. I shadowed Dr. Shriji Patel, an ophthalmologist and retina specialist at VUMC, obtaining first-hand experience of patient care.

My experiences in the clinic and operating room have helped me better understand the limitations of current technology and the potential to improve patient care. Ophthalmic surgery, for instance, is conventionally performed under a 2D microscope. However, procedures such as epiretinal membrane peels involve the manipulation of fine ocular tissues that are only tens-to-hundreds of microns thick. My own research, which involves providing 3D visualization of these surgical maneuvers, can offer depth- guided feedback for surgeons and potentially help verify completion of surgical goals.

More importantly, my observation has challenged my way of thinking about my own project. Engineering design itself has many technical challenges, and clinical translation and implementation of technology raises additional barriers, including cost, ease-of-use, and integration into surgical workflow. We also must be able to account for case variability, changes in the surgical environment, and patient and disease differences. With the guidance of mentors in the T32 training program, I have been able to think more broadly and critically about my project, and I intend to maintain a close collaboration with them to bring a fresh perspective as I continue my research.

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