Cross-Training Graduate Students to Develop Smart Robotic Surgical Instruments

November 29, 2021 | By Ken Kingery

Duke’s new NSF Research Traineeship Program brings engineers and computer scientists into the operating room to solve unmet surgical challenges

Three surgeons stand around a bed with a mannequin surrounded by machinery

Current surgical robots, like the da Vinci robot shown here used by Sabino Zani, MD, in Duke’s Robotic OR, are controlled via console by a surgeon trained to use the equipment. Photo courtesy of Duke Department of Surgery, taken by Huth Photo.

Duke University has launched a new training program aimed at encouraging doctoral students to develop the next generation of smart robotic surgical instruments.

Funded through a five-year, $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship (NRT) Program, the Traineeship in the Advancement of Surgical Technologies (TAST) program will provide a pathway for engineering and computer science graduate students to design innovations in fundamentally new technologies to advance surgical practice. By engaging interdisciplinary expertise from across Duke’s campus in areas such as law, ethics and global health, as well as industry partners, these new surgical instruments will also take into account provider, societal, end-user and patient needs.

“Duke has an excellent medical center with world-class surgeons who are already collaborating with engineers to create new surgical technologies,” said Brian Mann, professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at Duke and the architect of the TAST program. “It’s the perfect setting for taking a more purposeful approach to training tomorrow’s scientists to bring these emerging technologies into the operating room.”

Graduate students from all of Duke’s engineering departments as well as the computer science department are eligible for the two-year program. The first year begins with a semester focused on machine learning courses in combination with real-world surgical design challenges and a series of two-week dives into subjects such as robotics, entrepreneurship, ethics, and the realities and challenges of surgical procedures. The second semester is devoted to a group design project where students shadow surgeons on the job to identify unmet needs and work with medical students to propose potential solutions.

“Duke has an excellent medical center with world-class surgeons who are already collaborating with engineers to create new surgical technologies. It’s the perfect setting for taking a more purposeful approach to training tomorrow’s scientists to bring these emerging technologies into the operating room.”

brian mann | professor of mechanical engineering & materials science

“We want students to become confident in communicating with surgeons and learn how to go from the idea stage to creating useful technologies,” Mann said.

In the second year, TAST trainees propose and complete a research project aligned with their PhD research that addresses a current problem in surgery, mentored both by their own PhD advisor and a TAST faculty member. At the end of the year, the students will present their findings at an annual conference, with an audience of external industry experts to provide feedback.

Students then go on to complete an internship with private companies on the advisory board, which currently includes industry leaders such as Blue Cross Blue Shield, Johnson & Johnson, and up-and-coming surgical robotic outfits.

“We want to motivate students to create technologies that will move past current technologies where surgeons are essentially driving the robot like a car,” Mann said. “The next step in the evolution of surgical tools is to turn over some of the procedures that could be done better with automation technology to the robots.”

TAST officially kicked off in September 2021, and the first class is scheduled to begin the program in the Fall of 2022. Current Duke engineering and computer science doctoral students who are interested in participating can find more information at https://mems.duke.edu/phd/certificates-training (scroll down to the "Research Traineeship Programs" header and open the "TAST" link).

Besides Mann, the interdisciplinary program is co-led by Leila Bridgeman, an expert in controls and robotics; Sabino Zani, a leader in surgical techniques and surgical robotics; and Patrick Codd, an expert in neurosurgery and laser scalpels. The leadership team includes faculty and staff from Duke University’s Thomas Lord Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and Departments of Biomedical Engineering, Computer Science, and Electrical and Computer Engineering; Duke University School of Medicine’s Departments of Emergency Medicine, Neurosurgery and Oncology; and Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship, Intellectual Property, and the Office for Translation & Commercialization.