May 1, 2008

How Engineering and Medicine Mesh

My externship with Charles Gatt Jr. ’85, an orthopedic surgeon at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. By Carolyn Stolfi ’09

During the interim-session, Carolyn Stolfi ’09 (Chatham, N.J.) spent a week shadowing Charles Gatt Jr. ’85, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey’s Robert Wood Johnson Medical School (UMDNJ-RWJ) in New Brunswick, N.J.

As a mechanical engineering major with a biotechnology minor, I have become very fascinated by biomedical engineering topics. I can only acquaint myself with them through reading magazines, browsing websites, talking with my professors, and attending any lectures sponsored by Lafayette that pertain to the biomedical field. While these secondary experiences have greatly supplemented my undergraduate curriculum, I am always looking for an opportunity to obtain first-hand experience.

For one week, I had the pleasure of observing an orthopedic surgeon at the UMDNJ-RWJ University Orthopaedic Group. As an engineering major, I felt that I may seem out of place in an environment dedicated to medicine and health. After meeting my host, Dr. Charles Gatt, I quickly discovered that would not be the case, as I learned that he graduated from Lafayette as a chemical engineering major looking toward medical school.

We talked for several minutes before seeing his patients, discussing my hopes for the week as well as my aspirations for the future. When I told Dr. Gatt of my interests in biomedical engineering, I was surprised to learn that he mentored graduate students in UMDNJ’s and Rutgers’ joint biomedical engineering program. Before seeing a patient, Dr. Gatt would discuss his or her case and make note of any engineering application, such as how different forces and stresses can cause a specific injury. I observed routine procedures for knee, ankle, and shoulder injuries, and I had many opportunities to see x-rays and MRIs.

During the week, I also watched two total hip replacements, an open shoulder surgery, and three knee arthroscopies. I tried to find the engineering applications within each surgery. I easily saw the importance of prosthetic devices after observing the hip replacements. I soon learned that no detail was to be overlooked in any medical device or equipment. A prosthetic hip consists of several pieces that represent the bone it is replacing. The prosthetic cup for the hip has small grooves on its surface so that bone may grow into them, thus creating a meshwork from which the rest of the prosthetic hip can be supported.

Arthroscopic knee surgeries, in which all work is done internally and displayed by a small camera onto a television screen, similarly emphasized the significance of the instruments used. Dr. Gatt explained the accuracy with which one could explore a torn meniscus and how one can eliminate any torn tissue with minimal scarring following the operation. As with engineering, I noticed the importance of communication between nurses, surgical technicians, anesthesiologists, and the surgeons. This was evident both in the operating room and during Dr. Gatt’s visits with his patients.

One of my favorite aspects of this experience was receiving the opportunity to speak with Dr. Gatt’s graduate students about their projects and their overall experiences in a graduate level biomedical engineering program. These students specifically worked in the tissue engineering laboratory. Here, students design scaffolds out of polymer fibers and then implant them surgically into test subjects such as rabbits and sheep. The students analyze how well the subjects’ tissue grows into the scaffold that replaces the damaged tissue. This is one of several projects that I learned about during my time spent with these students.

My externship with Dr. Gatt was a wonderful experience, as I learned about orthopedics from medical and engineering perspectives. It was particularly rewarding for me to see that medicine and engineering heavily depend on one other’s progress, and I cannot thank Dr. Gatt enough for providing me this first-hand experience.

My discussions with Dr. Gatt, during our short lunch breaks, before patient visits, and in the operating room were very meaningful; I have acquired new terminology, learned about surgical procedures, and received helpful advice from professionals. It was quite a didactic experience that has only strengthened my desire to pursue a career in biomedical engineering.

During the summer of 2006, Stolfi worked as an EXCEL scholar with Arthur Kney, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, on the removal of the harmful perchlorate ion from groundwater. She serves as secretary for the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and is also a member of the College’s branch of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). She is the pianist for the College’s Jazz Combo and an event supervisor for Kirby Sports Center.

  • Externships/Internships
  • Mechanical Engineering

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