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Smart Prosthetic Research Highlights, A Visual Essay!

Hi Everyone and Happy New Year!

Thanks for all of your emails asking me about my work! I’m grateful for your interest and also realize I could do a better job of explaining the rat prosthetic research I am working on. The work, which my lab is undertaking with the collaboration of a Muscle Physiology Research Lab at U of M has to do with the use of a smart polymer that has been developed by that lab, made to nurture and collect signals from severed nerve ends long-term. Where my work comes in is taking the information being collected from that polymer coated nerve and processing it with the purpose of re-creating accurate high fidelity limb movements. So here is a visual essay of my work thus far on this project. The first two images and movie are abit graphic, I apologize for that, and hope they don’t put you off…

Anyway here goes!

Here’s what the rat’s leg does when a stimulation signal is provided.

(Click to see Movie)

I can replicate this motion with an artificial rat leg I designed and built.

(Click to see Movie)

… or use non-invasive surface EMG data from my flexing arm to make the leg move …

(Click to see Movie)

Thanks for reading and more to come soon!

Trick or … Robots ?!?

It’s been a very (at least academically speaking) eventful fall for me. Two weeks ago I took my PhD candidacy oral qualifying exam (which, YAY!, I passed), and since then, back to coursework and more research. The nice thing about passing the Research Fundamental Exam without any amendments is that I do not have to take any more intensive courses, at least for the PhD portion of my degree. As an aside, there are three outcomes for this exam; passing, conditional passing (in which case the academic committee suggests enrollment in research topic related coursework), or failing (in which case you can petition to take the exam again in a semester).

So what will I do now that this giant milestone is behind me? Keep working hard at doing nerdy things of course… Here’s an example: This October 27th, (see attached shamelessly advertised flyer) some of the grad students in Robotics are taking part in an open house robotics demo with a Halloween theme. I think I’ll probably have three demos showing, Mr. Needles my suturing robot, a brain wave controlled remote controlled mobile robot platform, which is meant for teaching mice “driving” skills (yes really, you will control it with your thoughts!!) and some suture tension and tissue trauma measuring devices. So, if you’re interested, come on by! (See Flier for more details)

Robotics Halloween Open House

Someone actually funds this stuff?

Mr. Needles and Me

I know the title of this post is a bit tongue in cheek, but I seem to leave a lot of people thinking this way when I tell them what my current research work entails. I think the sentiment started earlier this year upon telling my parents and med school friends what kind of work I do in the entrails of the North Engineering Campus. But the feeling solidified for sure about two weekends ago at the annual MD/PhD retreat. Every year, at the end of July, the participants in the MD/PhD program go on a retreat for the weekend, where part of the less-fun activities entail each member of the program presenting their current research. Most of my peers’ work is done in the biological and biomedical fields, though there are some of us left outfielders whose research is in Public Health, or, gasp, one cooky guy whose work is in Mechanical Engineering. He’s way out there.

I’m not the only one who feels this way about the work I do. At this year’s retreat I presented the baby steps of what is supposed to become the development of an educational tool whose purpose is to teach novices the fine art of suturing. But, at this stage in my work, I am stuck with characterizing how a standard foam suturing pad deforms as it is penetrated by a circular surgical needle. Well, it all has to start somewhere I suppose. It was either presenting this project or my proof of concept design for a rat chariot, which the rat can control with signals from brain or muscle. I am looking for someone to actually fund this, if there are any takers.

Anyway, during my presentation, I tried to get everyone excited about repeatedly impaling a suturing pad with a needle. The excitement nearly proved contagious, but mostly for myself; I could tell this was the case as I started going off on tangents during my presentation about the joys of solid mechanics and elastic deformations…

Needless to say, going off script was not the best idea. Despite, or because of my enthusiasm, I had lost just about everyone during the talk, including myself and whatever salient points I was trying to make by minute 5 or so.

Later that night, there is a tradition that the senior graduating fellows give a series of awards and gifts to their colleagues in the program as well as to the faculty advisers.  And this is where the title of my blog post was born. Indeed, Saturday July 29th I became the winner of the first ever offbeat “Someone actually funds this insert expletive here?!?” award!!! More of these to come in the coming years, I’m sure of it!

Introducing Mr. and Dr. Ursu

At the altar at St. Michael's Greek Orthodox Church, Binghamton, NY.

Although Allison and I had been dating for ten years and had lived together for almost five, it was only this January that we became officially engaged and only this June 4th that we actually got married. I suppose the reasons for living as partners for so long are similar in nature to those of other young professionals who delay marriage. Allison had really wanted to marry after she finished all of her schooling so that she could actually enjoy the process without having to worry about other pending issues. (That we learned, does not happen no matter what.) I on the other hand was too busy with my own academic life to want to worry about wedding preparations. Nevertheless, the time had come, and before we knew it, and much to our parents’ joy, whom were collectively wondering where our relationship was heading, we were in Binghampton NY, in Allison’s childhood church offering our love and hearts to each other, in front of more than two hundred people.

Looking back, I only remember glimpses of my wedding day. Much like the day when we got engaged with the aid of a ring-pop and a sleigh ride, the day stands out like individual fragments of shattered stained glass, which somehow do not seem to fit together, as if this was not reality, as if these events did not really happen as part of a cogent day, as part of a life plan.

What did stand out however, and is strange even now as I reflect back upon it, was the introduction that was given after the wedding ceremony, as Allison and I joined the wedding banquet and celebrations.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome Mr. and Dr. Ursu.”

It sounds so strange, not only because Allison chose a last name that individuals have difficulty pronouncing and more often than not require it to be spelled, but also for the prefix preceding it. It was a distinction, not only speaking of Allison’s amazing achievement of having graduated medical school and obtained her medical license that May, but also of the fact that I was nowhere near done. And like that it hit me; Allison was moving on with her life and becoming an adult while I was still in school, in the first year of my PhD, with 5 more years to go.

When MD/PhD students recall the most emotionally difficult moments of their training, most seem to fall on the instance when they see their friends and colleagues who did not pursue a dual degree graduate. This event often stirs feelings of doubt and second guessing, soul searching whether so much school is indeed worth it. I saw some of my older friends graduate and Allison do so as well, but it was at our wedding introduction that these emotions hit me. Where am I going from here? When will I be done? Is this all worthwhile?

Blast from the Past!

It really works!

A leg prosthesis made to the dimensions of a rat hind leg

It has been awhile since I updated my posts on Dose of Reality, so in that sense, the title of this entry is appropriate. On the other hand, I thought of this title abit in advance, specifically when I re-entered the world of engineering education this September. It has been two and a half years now since I have been a member of the University of Michigan student community. But for the first two years, I was mostly a member of the medical student community. Cue the month of September, first day of my PhD program in mechanical engineering; new campus (North Campus 1.5 miles away from the medical campus), new classes (Linear Systems Theory & Dynamics), new way of thinking…

Or perhaps not so new. I was an engineering student in biomedical and mechanical engineering before becoming a medical student, so re-entering the engineering domain was a bittersweet re-introduction with an old acquaintance. To be honest, I had forgotten a lot about what engineering classes and research was like: the large homework assignments (I had my first hw assignment in 3 years back in September), the open ended questions waiting to be answered, but also the thrill of exploring different and uncharted paths… Ok, not exactly strong selling points.

But at the very least, I’m glad to be doing research again and working in a field in which I feel comfortable knowledge-wise. Sure, there is a lot I have to learn, but at least I am somewhat used to thinking the way an engineer / engineering grad student would. I am also pretty excited about my current research projects: Finishing work and experiments on a robot capable of replicating the process of suturing by measuring the forces and trajectories of human hands as they suture; designing a mechanical rat leg prosthesis (pictured) and experiments to collect rat brain wave data in the hopes of figuring out when the rat thinks to use its leg , so that at that point the prosthesis can replicate the intended motion, and finally finishing the statistical analyses on experiments performed with a balance aid for the elderly.

Nevertheless, I am starting to miss my days at the medical school. I am not sure I miss the idea or responsibilities of being a third year medical student, but I definitely miss my friends whom now I get to see less and less…