Bioengineers take gold in Senior Design Competition

Penn Engineering Senior Design Project

From left to right: Nicki Blumenfeld, Brian Horwich, Katherine Kuchenbecker, the Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, Anna Brzezinski, and Zach Shurden.

For the first time in nearly a decade, a team from the Department of Bioengineering took the top prize in the School of Engineering Applied Science’s Senior Design Project Competition. The annual tradition pits the top teams from the senior design classes in the school’s six departments against one another.

Tasked with finding a real-world problem and solving it with a new piece of technology, the teams spend several months brainstorming different approaches, refining techniques, and consulting with a faculty advisor and outside experts who have experience in the field of their application.

The three best teams from each class advance to face each other in the Senior Design Competition, which is sponsored by the Engineering Alumni Society and organized through Penn Engineering’s Office of Development.

On April 25, the 18 contenders assembled in the Wu and Chen Auditorium in Levine Hall and made their pitches to a panel of alumni judges, who graded them on their design process, the results they achieved, and how well they presented the impact of their technology.   

The winning team—HapTech—consists of Nicki Blumenfeld, Anna Brzezinski, Brian Horwich, and Zach Shurden.

Advised by Katherine Kuchenbecker, a member of the Graduate Group of Bioengineering and an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics (MEAM), and Ted Gomez, a former Bioengineering undergrad and current student at the Perelman School of Medicine, the team has developed a touch-feedback system for a laparoscopic surgical tool.

Working with long instruments inserted into the patient through keyhole incisions, laparoscopic surgeons are unable to directly see or touch what they are operating on. This can be especially challenging while performing cautery, which involves using electric current to burn away tissue or seal open blood vessels. To further complicate matters, other instruments can conduct the current from cautery tools, potentially burning tissues outside the surgeon’s field of vision.

Taking inspiration from some of Kuchenbecker’s other touch-feedback, or haptic, surgical tools, the team’s breakthrough was to change the source of the data that would be turned into vibrations in the surgeon’s hand. Other haptic tools measure and amplify the vibrations from the tool, but the team's device measures changes in the cautery tool’s current. This allows it to provide feedback whenever electricity is passing though tissue, whether directly from the cautery tool or indirectly from another instrument. 

“Since we’re using the electrical signal to determine whether or not to provide the tactile feedback to users, this device can be applied to existing cautery tools,” Brzeziniski says. “As this is a technique that’s used in almost all surgeries, it has a real potential to improve safety.”

Beyond the honor of winning and the practice in thinking how to commercialize an idea—the team has already filed a provisional patent—the competition serves as a capstone to students’ engineering education.

“You have to take everything in a book, in the lab, in a class, and in the real world, and you have to integrate them by yourself,” says Professor Beth Winkelstein, who teaches Bioengineering’s senior design class. “This is the culmination of their entire academic experience.”

Originally published on May 9, 2013