While many undergraduate students went home for the summer to work various jobs or take a break from studying, David Gostin stayed at Vanderbilt, doing research in a lab on the top floor in Olin Hall.
Gostin, a rising senior mechanical engineering major from Dallas, works with Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Robert J. Webster III and graduate student Ray Lathrop, BE’97, his direct supervisors in the Medical and Electromechanical Design Laboratory (MEDLab). Webster’s team concentrates on minimally invasive organ scanning using a laparoscope and a laser-based conoscope—a holographic scanner—to produce a three-dimensional image of the human liver.
Lathrop explains that 3-D intraoperative organ surface scans currently require large incisions, while the conoscope technique can accomplish the same objectives through an incision only a few millimeters long. Their experiments have demonstrated the feasibility of a laparoscopic holography-based 3-D scanner for image registration, as well as the feasibility of using an automated aiming mechanism at the tip of the laparoscope.
The current technology of CT scans and MRI allows physicians to look at internal anatomy, but when the time comes for surgery, surgeons must mentally reconstruct 3-D anatomical information from the two-dimensional projections that they have seen.
“If a holographic scanner, which produces a three-dimensional image by recording light scattered from the surface of the organ, could robotically scan organ surfaces through a small laparoscopic incision and align that data onto a segmented CT, then a surgeon could more precisely guide surgical needles into opaque tissue like the liver,” Gostin says.
Research to Real-world Use
Gostin is one of nearly 20 engineering students working on research projects this summer as part of the School of Engineering’s Summer Undergraduate Research Experience program, which gives undergraduate students the chance to work in the school’s labs for 10 weeks. Each student works under the supervision of a faculty member on active research projects, often on teams that include graduate students and other undergraduates. The sponsoring professor pays half of the students’ wages and the dean of engineering’s office pays the other half.
Webster says that Gostin has done an excellent job on his research project. “He is directly involved in translating Vanderbilt research to real-world use in hospitals. He has worked closely with a startup company that was spun out of Vanderbilt, and his research will be directly used to enhance its product.”
Building Confidence, Building Experience
Once considered the domain of graduate students and faculty, research by undergraduates is an important component of the educational experience in the School of Engineering. The undergraduate research activity has been found to increase students’ skills, knowledge, confidence, career preparation and likelihood to graduate and go onto graduate school.
Gostin says that his work on the project has been primarily as a software programmer. That is work that might be expected to come to him naturally: both his parents graduated from the School of Engineering with computer science degrees. His father, Gary Gostin, BE’76, is a computer hardware designer at Hewlett Packard and his mother, Janette Strother Gostin, BS’76, majored in computer science and math.
Although using computer languages C++ and LabVIEW were his primary contributions to this summer’s research project, Gostin’s interest in robotics and mechatronics are a large part of why he wants to continue working with Webster and Lathrop after the summer is over.
“I tell David not to worry. Some projects require software, but mechanical design work is in the very near future for him,” Webster says.