by Meredith Dault
November 30, 2010
Though graduate students Sarah Fleming, Andrew Dickinson and Amy VanBerlo come from very different academic backgrounds, they have one important thing in common: a tendency towards unconventional thinking. It's for that reason that the three were selected (along with a handful of others) to participate in the Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) in Bone and Joint Health Technologies, an initiative of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada (NSERC) that was first launched at Queen's in 2009.
Hosted in the Human Mobility Research Centre (HMRC), and affiliated with Kingston General Hospital, the program brings together graduate students and postdoctoral fellows (along with a small handful of undergrads) in a bid to generate interdisciplinary research around human mobility. "We're basically fusing various disciplines in science and engineering with an aim of developing bone and joint health technology," explains Dickinson, a second year Master's student working on a degree in computing. "The idea is that they can get all of us from different disciplines together, and that we can show technology to one another that we might not have known about otherwise, in a bid to improve research and to make more of a clinical impact."
"It's also a way to streamline the whole research process," explains Fleming, a second year Master's student in the department of chemical engineering. "Typically research meets a dead end -- it doesn't always make it to clinical situations. But we're trying to incorporate doctors and medical residents into the research process. They are giving us input. They're telling us why things will or won't work." Fleming's research is in tissue engineering -- her work is with the growth of stem cells derived from fatty tissues on a 3-D structure also derived from fatty tissues. Thanks to her work through the HMRC-CREATE program, when she graduates, Fleming will be one of the first students at Queen's to finish with a specialty in biomedical engineering.
With his interest in computer programming, Dickinson (who started his academic career in life sciences) points out that he and Fleming would not have the chance to work together under normal academic circumstances. "I don't know anything about what Sarah does," he laughs, "but (this program is about) being able to fuse the ideas that any one of us have, in the hopes that new research can be driven from that." Dickinson's work is around medical imaging -- essentially bridging the gap between the worlds of computers and medicine. "A lot of software packages are targeted at medical people, but they aren't programmers. They aren't going to learn to write highly advanced (programming language) C++," he explains. "My work is in abstracting the code away, and reinterpreting it with useability ... so a program can, in my software, be "written" as a flow chart." He then laughs again when he reflects on the program as a whole: "I can fuse both my nerdly passions -- computers and medicine -- in one place!"
Fellow Master's computing student, VanBerlo, a graduate of the Queen's Biomedical Computing undergraduate degree program, is also interested in bridging the gap between technology and medicine. "I'm developing a technology that allows the assessment of a patient after surgery.," she explains. "More particularly, I am looking at minor nerve damage that occurs during surgery, any procedure that requires an incision or cut really" As part of her research, VanBerlo has developed a camera system and accompanying software which she says is a "non invasive, extremely accurate and reproducible tool to image patients and to track their conditions." She hopes, ultimately, that her work will decrease the extent of surgically caused nerve damage in patients.
All three agree that the program's strength is in its potential for collaboration. "It's about just being aware," says Fleming, "because we don't know half of the technology that exists! How a computer can be involved in a process, for example. If it's a repeatable task, then you can get a computer to do it, but you can't do that if you don't know that the technology exists!"
VanBerlo applauds the program's unconventional approach. "It's given me perspective on what's out there," she explains, "and not just in terms of technology and paradigms of thinking, but it also helps me get away from academia and focus on what I can do for a career in a practical sense." "The program is definitely developing us as people," adds Fleming. "We're running research groups, managing projects -- they are all skills that you can use in the real world, or in the industry." Fleming says that since participating in the HRMC-CREATE program she as been able to go on orthopedic rounds and has been able to observe surgeries in the operating room. "They are all opportunities that you wouldn't normally get as a grad student," she says with a smile. "The program really has everything going on!"