Research and mentorship thrive through medical school and engineering collaboration
When Zakk Walterscheid came to the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, he was ready to put his focus on becoming a doctor.
“I honestly thought my engineering career was over and behind me,” said the graduate from the University of California San Diego. “I had a nice diploma to hang on the wall that said biomedical engineering.”
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, who has supported the university through his time, service, and gifts.
Artis and Walterscheid connected at an annual reception hosted by about a dozen Roanoke and Southwest Virginia community members and couples for first-year students at the medical school. Pat Artis and his wife, Nancy, are among the sponsors. 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.
As Walterscheid dove into his studies, he found himself drawn toward orthopaedics. He began working on his research project – a requirement for all students at the VTC School of Medicine – with Jonathan Carmouche, assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery and section chief of orthopaedic spine at Carilion Clinic’s Institute for Orthopaedics and Neuroscience.
Carmouche founded and directs the Musculoskeletal Education and Research Center (MERC) within the Department of Orthopaedics, which meets once a month. Currently the group consists of six physicians who are medical school faculty members and 31 current VTC medical students. The group fosters musculoskeletal research by pairing students with orthopaedic faculty mentors.
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.
Third-year medical student Conor O’Neill began research on the new technique versus the old, while Walterscheid took a different angle.
“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.
While the team faced some challenges, such as coordinating work between Blacksburg and Roanoke, they found ways to bridge the divide and produce high-quality results. The undergraduates helped with the compression study, but went beyond to design a tool that could be used during surgery to extract bone. The undergraduates were even listed as authors on a research paper with Walterscheid, which was formally presented as a scientific exhibit at an international meeting of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
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.”
Alyssa Huntington, who earned a degree in engineering science and mechanics in May and is a current graduate student in the department, was on Walterscheid’s team. “I have always struggled deciding between pursuing a career in medicine or pursuing a career in engineering. I seek out opportunities to combine the two,” Huntington said. “It was interesting to have feedback from the surgical point of view while we were trying to come up with design constraints from the engineering perspective.”
That push and pull between medicine and science is just one of the reasons why the BEAM department hopes to expand these types of collaborations, particularly with the medical school’s students and faculty.
“When people approach problems from orthogonal perspectives, they yield an enormous amount of new ideas and ways to approach problems,” Artis said. “The doctors help the engineers pare down ideas to what is reasonable with patients, and the engineers solve problems that the doctors don’t have necessarily the time nor the mechanics background to be able to approach.”
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.
“When I got to medical school, I knew coming in that we were required to do research. It was one of the things that I liked. But I thought after that, research would be behind me,” Walterscheid said. “But, now it will absolutely be something I continue. I want to practice at a major academic center and still be involved.”
After graduation, Huntington shadowed several doctors and surgeons this summer, even getting to observe the procedure she worked to refine through the project, trying to solidify which path to take: medicine or engineering.
“I found the surgeries and medicine so fascinating, but as I was watching, I didn’t necessarily feel like I needed to be the one holding the scalpel,” Huntington said. “I think that I would be equally excited being an engineer who makes surgery better, working with the surgeon to create better procedures.”
She plans to pursue a career in medical device design after finishing her master’s degree.
For now, Artis hopes to build on these successes.
“This is a classic opportunity where there should be a turf battle of who is in charge and who is the big dog. And there’s just none of that. Everyone thinks they are winning,” Artis said.