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The Benefit of Mentorship and Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration

Tuesday, October 18, 2016  
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When Zakk Walterscheid came to the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, after earning adegree in biomedical engineering from University of California San Diego, he wanted to turn his focus on becoming a medical doctor.

That is, until a few short months into medical school when he met Pat Artis, a professor of practice in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics (BEAM) in the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech and a 1971 graduate of Virginia Tech’s Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics. Artis gave Walterscheid his card after bonding over their engineering backgrounds, encouraging him to consider teaming up with a BEAM senior project team for his research.

Walterscheid began working with Jonathan Carmouche, assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery and section chief of orthopaedic spine at Carilion Clinic’s Institute for Orthopaedics and Neuroscience, on his required research project. Carmouche was working on a new technique for spine surgery where surgeons take some bone out of a patient’s vertebrae and use it to replace a spinal disc. "The question was if you are taking a chunk of bone out of the vertebrae, are you making it weaker?” Walterscheid said. “I figured the best way to get that answer was to take models, compress them, and see how they compare to each other. At which point it became clear that we need an engineer to get involved.”
Walterscheid remembered his meeting with Artis a few months prior and took him up on the offer to help. Artis connected him with Raffaella De Vita, associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics in the College of Engineering, who had the equipment Walterscheid needed. Then, Artis took it a step further, encouraging Walterscheid to pitch his project to undergraduates who were looking for research for their senior design projects.
“The day I pitched my project, I walked away with five engineers on my team,” Walterscheid said.
Essentially, they adapted an Archimedes drill, which spins a screw down while using water to send the material back up, to be used in the surgery. “It was really brilliant that they were able to take something from classical engineering and apply it here. It’s simple and elegant,” Walterscheid said. “It was an ah-ha moment as to why we have an engineering team working with us.”
“The amount of data that they came up with in a very short period of time was amazing. The tool design – the whole thing was much more sophisticated than I ever would have expected,” Carmouche said. “Some of it was Zakk, but there was a huge contribution from the undergraduates. I think they had a great time working on it, and it is nice when you work on an engineering project to see the clinical relevance.”
This year, the partnership grew with Artis connecting another medical student, Swami Rajaram, with a new undergraduate team for their senior design project. Artis also connected other medical students directly with faculty in BEAM for their research projects. Carmouche expects medical students in his MERC group to pitch a handful of projects to BEAM students this year.
The need for these collaborations is only expected to grow.
“As we look to increase our biomedical undergraduates, we are going to have a lot of students who need projects,” said Pam VandeVord, N. Waldo Harrison Professor and interim department head of BEAM. “These collaborations fit in with the provost’s vision as well, to expand out into Roanoke in the Virginia Tech Carilion Health Sciences and Technology Campus and get more connections. We have a huge opportunity to do that with the medical school.”
Beyond the win-win for research and informal mentorship, the projects have the opportunity to shape students’ futures.

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