BE 400 (Clinical Preceptorship in Bioengineering) celebrates the intersection between medicine and engineering. Exclusively for bioengineering juniors and seniors during the spring semester, the class introduces students to realistic problems and opportunities in clinical medicine through lectures and an in-depth preceptorship in a clinical department. Prof. David Eckmann curates a fine line-up of lecturers and preceptors, all of whom are scientists involved in bioengineering-related clinical practice and research.
Lectures in January and February cover a wide breadth of topics from veterinary orthopedics to breast cancer screenings to glow-in-the-dark oncology. All presenters are accomplished professionals in their area of interest that share fascinating personal experiences and lead lively discussions. This component of the course is most fulfilling due to its capacity to inspire learning without a nerve-wracking final exam waiting at the end. The most exciting part of the class, however, is the hands-on experience acquired through the preceptorship.
Over the course of the semester, my partner Trisha and I worked with Dr. Jennifer Snow and Dr. Gregg Lipschik. The Penn Medicine Clinical Simulation Center—affectionately known as the Sim Center—acted as our headquarters. Located downtown at Penn Medicine at Rittenhouse, the 22,000 square foot facility was once a functional operating room suite converted in July 2008 to become the renowned center it is today. The Sim Center possesses operating rooms, surgical skills labs, patient examination offices, and conference areas with a technologically advanced control center located at the heart of it all. The facility supports a wide range of state-of-the-art medical simulation technology used for both team training and individual instruction, from SimMans (human patient simulators) set in realistic hospital settings to task trainers teaching skills such as central line placement and endotracheal intubation. The Sim Center also regularly hosts classes and training programs for everything from Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support (ACLS) to Neonatal Resuscitation.
Physicians, students, and healthcare professionals from the School of Medicine, neighboring institutions, and the global healthcare field often visit the Sim Center to tour, practice skills, or gain inspiration (the first day we went in, a pair of professionals from Russia was exploring the space with the hopes of implementing a similar center in their home city!). During our time there, we were fortunate enough to try some of the equipment out for ourselves. We can proudly say that we have administered our first spinal tap and conducted procedures with laparoscopic tools!
At our first preceptorship team meeting in January, Dr. Snow introduced us to many potential projects to work on for the next few months. We were most attracted to an obstetrics and gynecology (OB/GYN) collaboration; not much simulation existed in the field and we had the opportunity to make significant contributions. We began studying cerclage pessaries under the direction of Dr. Snow and Dr. Pamela Neff. A pessary is a medical device that can provide structural support to the female pelvic organs or deliver medication. We specifically focused on pessaries that fit over and around the cervix during pregnancy to prevent premature labor; these are effective alternatives to normal stitch-based cerclages. Dr. Neff and her team needed a life-sized cross-sectional model of a female pelvis allowing an adult-sized hand to place a pessary within in order to demonstrate correct placement.
Product design is not just about the final product one creates at the end: it is an involved progression with difficult challenges and great successes. We gained exposure to every step of the design process. What started with conducting general literature searches to understand pessaries and the female anatomy led to conceptualizing an original design for the model on paper. We transformed this into a 3D CAD version using SolidWorks, using it as a blueprint to explore material options for our model and contacting multiple Philadelphia region-based companies for quotes. We additionally spent time designing the cervix and uterus themselves for the vaginal model, considering a silicone material and a balloon filled with pellets as possibilities. A prioritization matrix helped us compare characteristics of the avenues we could embark on and benchmark our status. By the time April arrived, we gained a deep understanding of the field and created a design that could be further developed by future teams. We ultimately presented our work to a panel of bioengineering professors and professionals.
I never thought I would have the opportunity to design a medical device prototype model for practicing physicians as a college undergraduate. BE 400 gives incredible exposure to the medical field, builds a student’s knowledge base and network, and shows what is possible when a void and potential solution can be identified. Many projects integrate the technical skills and business savvy necessary to be successful in today’s world, which can be quite attractive to M&T students. I highly recommend the course to all bioengineering students (and would encourage underclassmen to consider bioengineering as a major so you get to take the class!).