Charlie Bondhus ’18: Brigham and Women’s Surgical Navigation and Robotics Laboratory

Over the course of this summer, I have the exciting opportunity to work at Dr. Nobuhiko Hata’s Surgical Navigation and Robotics Laboratory.

Every morning my alarm rings at exactly 6:20 A.M., and I rush out of the house to make 7:22 commuter rail to Boston. I get off my train at Ruggles, and make the mile trek past Northeastern, MassArt, Wentworth Institute of Technology, and the Museum of Fine Art until I finally reach Brigham and Women’s Hospital, comprised of two buildings connected by a glass bridge. I enter the the one on the right and dart into in an almost full elevator. After descending a floor to L1, I edge my way around a crowd of doctors already in their scrubs, intensely focused on a morphing image on a computer screen, before I arrive at a wood door whose sole window is fogged up, making the interior unobservable to passerby. On my first day, my initial impression was that of a vault, and I wondered what lay within.

Upon entering, I meander over to my desk next to Friso, a Dutch employee whose work I don’t competely understand yet and set up my laptop and journal, in which I keep reminders, notes, how-to’s, and pretty much anything else I think is worth writing down. Currently I am working under Franklin King, a research assistant here at the lab. One of his many projects is a VR surgical planning program, and it is this one I get to work on with him. The simulator actually runs using the Unity engine, software which is primarily used for video game developement but is now being adapted for more practical uses. The fact that we are using a video game engine to save peoples lives is something that I was surprised by at first, but now am amused and excited by. Who would’ve thought that I’d be using the same software used to run some of my favorite games to help surgeons save a life?

Currently, I am familiarizing myself with Unity by coding several games myself, including an arcade style space shooter in the same vein as Space Invaders while Franklin sets up a computer capable of supporting VR technologies. The shooter I am making is actually something quite similar to a game design project I did in Mr. Schlenker’s computer programming summer course two summers ago. The skills I learned then have helped me tremendously in understanding Unity.

At a meeting the other day, Frankie showcased a video of his progress on the simulator, and I am happy that I am joining on for this stage of development. Currently, it is far enough to have a concrete form, but early enough where it is not just polishing but instead one feels as though they are creating and adding something to the project. With my time here, I have the opportunity to make a meaningful impact on the work here at the lab, something I admittedly doubted I would be able to do before I started. The more I learn and develop, the more excited I get about the program’s applications to the world of medicine.

Dr. Junichi Tokuda expains his current work with a robot designed to help with prostate biopsies through cryo-ablation of tissue.

Something that surprised me about the office is the sense of community here. Every Wednesday, the whole lab meets in a conference room in a round table style discussion where we share what we accompished in the week since the last meeting. The lab has several ongoing projects, but the most intriguing to me is the collaboration with an industrial partner. This venture seems to be one of the partnering company’s first forays into the territory of medicine, making it an exciting undertaking for both the lab and the company.

Additionally, Dr. Hata takes us interns, no matter what level, out to lunch every chance he gets. Here, us interns get to discuss with him our progress and get a more personal perspective from him. He takes the time out of his very busy day to provide us with advice and suggestions, something I appreciate very much considering how hectic his schedule is and how much it helps to have an expert give your work honest feedback. These little get togethers also give me the chance to learn a little more about some of what the other interns are doing. At first, I was surprised at the level of work they are doing considering their positions as interns.

Brandon Tran, an electrical engineering major attending John Hopkins University, is creating a learning-based algorithm to locate a target area of the liver to eliminate the inaccuracies in a scan and the possibility of a faulty biopsy or an avoidable complication as a result of a surgery. A complicated project like this one is something I would expect a more senior member of the staff to be doing, but the opposite is true. Indeed, Brandon does most of the work himself and puts his own spin on the project, free from the hand-holding one might expect of an internship. I was actually shocked at the beginning when I learned that he was only in college, not a full fledged member of the lab. I think this independence speaks to the character of the lab where they largely expect you to solve your own problems ask for help yourself instead having someone peering over your shoulder constantly.

The only other high school intern is Kate Silva, a student at Concord Academy. She is working on a robot that provides an endoscopic view into the body with Dr. Takahisa Kato. Her specific assignment is to add an EM sensor, so you can tell where the robot is inside the body. Her project is something that I have no experience with, showing the diversity of skillsets at the lab, even among interns.

Despite only being here for a week and a half, I am already eager to learn more about people’s various projects. The work going on here is on the cutting edge of medicine; it seems that there are new discoveries and innovations being made here every day.