Graduate Student Interns Work to Save Medical Teams Precious Time in Treating Stroke Patients

The UVA Department of Biomedical Engineering introduced its Master of Engineering in Biomedical Engineering program last fall with a straightforward goal: connect young engineers who want to bring innovative medical technologies to the private sector with the knowledge and skills to do so.

“We want to make every moment count for our students,” said Jonathan Rosen, professor of the practice in biomedical engineering and the department’s director of professional studies. “That’s why we introduced BIOME.”

With funding from the UVA Coulter Translational Research Partnership and sponsor organizations, Rosen launched BIOME, a paid internship program that gives students real-world experience developing a medical device, either with a local company or UVA Health. A two-month gap between the spring semester and the summer session offered the perfect timing for an internship.

Robin Liu and Tehan Dassanayaka will graduate in December with Master of Engineering degrees in biomedical engineering

Left to right: Tehan Dassanayaka and Robin Liu will graduate in December with Master of Engineering degrees in biomedical engineering. For their BIOME internship, they developed a graphical user interface for a telestroke diagnosis device.

Making Every Second Count for Victims of Stroke

The internships have real impact.  A case in point is a project for the Department of Neurology and the Karen S. Rheuban Center for Telehealth. Robin Liu and Tehan Dassanayaka, who will graduate in December with Master of Engineering degrees in biomedical engineering, were tasked with improving the accuracy of a stroke telemedicine device.

Identifying visual field deficits is a critical element of the NIH Stroke Scale assessment, but it is a procedure that emergency room physicians and nurses often lack the experience to perform. And because every passing second increases the risk of significant brain damage, UVA neurologists providing telestroke consults don’t have time to train their counterparts on the spot. They need a simple device that emergency room personnel can place on a patient’s face that would allow them to test for visual field deficits from a distance.

With a grant from the Ivy Foundation, the project team created a prototype device, which looks like a pair of glasses with four LED lights embedded in the four visual quadrants around each eye. 

“Our goal was to develop a simple, robust device that would allow the telestroke neurologist to flash stimuli in the right locations,” said Ashe Allende, the grant’s program manager and an alumnus who graduated in 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering and is now pursuing a master’s degree in public health at UVA. “We designed a prototype.  We then turned to Tehan and Robin to develop a GUI, a graphical user interface, that would enable our neurologists to control it.”

Prototype telehealth stroke device

The challenge for Liu and Dassanayaka was to develop a graphical user interface for the project team's prototype telestroke device. The interface needed to be intuitive and allow the neurologists at UVA to, for example, generate a random sequence of flashes, as well as to control each light individually.

Moving the Telestroke Device Closer to Clinical Trial

“Our challenge was to create a GUI that was intuitive and that had all the functionality that the neurologists at UVA would require,” Liu said. This included the ability to generate a random sequence of flashes as well as to control each light individually. 

Liu and Dassanayaka are now conducting verification tests of the interface with clinicians and porting it from a desktop to a mobile device with a touchscreen. They also helped create the prototype on a 3-D printer.

“We would not be at the stage of the project where we are considering clinical trials if not for the contributions Tehan and Robin made,” Allende said. “To say we are happy with their work is an understatement.”

At the same time that they accelerated progress on the device, Dassanayaka and Liu gained valuable experience. “By immersing ourselves in the project, we learned a great deal about CAD drawing, 3-D printing, and designing a GUI,” Liu said. “More importantly, we can put our resume that we printed a prototype and designed an interface for a medical device.”

Ashe Allende, program manager for the telestroke device project

"We would not be at the stage of the project where we are considering clinical trials if not for the contributions Tehan and Robin made. To say we are happy with their work is an understatement."

Ashe Allende, Program Manager the telestroke project

More about the BIOME Internship

In the program’s first year, all the students in the Master of Engineering program were matched to a paid summer internship with UVA Health or a local biotechnology company.

Rosen found strong advocates for BIOME in the Coulter Translational Research Partnership and CvilleBioHub, a non-profit dedicated to strengthening the Charlottesville-area biotechnology sector. Both organizations were able to provide matching dollars to offset interns’ salaries.

Many of the host companies were so impressed by the interns that they extended the internships into the fall, giving students the time to make a sustained contribution.

Inaugural class of BME Master of Engineering students

The inaugural class of BME Master of Engineering students, pictured here, will graduate in December 2020. By that time, each student will have observed 60-100 hours of patient care and clinical procedures, developed a product or process that advances the current standard of care, and completed a paid BIOME internship with UVA Health or a local biotechnology company.

More about the BME Master of Engineering

The BME Master of Engineering features a 15-month curriculum of carefully sequenced courses that give students the end-to-end skills needed to develop and commercialize biomedical innovations. At the same time, students have the opportunity to put this knowledge to work developing a product or process that they will unveil in their final semester.

“This department has always emphasized translation that moves discovery to the clinic,” Rosen said. “Our BIOME paid internships make that principle personal, giving our Master of Engineering students hands-on experience doing exactly that. It jumpstarts their job search.”