Research Traineeship Programs Prepare the Next Generation of Engineers

12/8 Pratt School of Engineering

The National Science Foundation-supported traineeship led by Duke MEMS aims to transform how graduate students engage with surgical technologies

Two students train on the DaVinci robotic surgery device
Research Traineeship Programs Prepare the Next Generation of Engineers

When Kent Yamamoto, a first-year medical robotics PhD student at Duke, visited his grandfather after doctors successfully resected a tumor, he was told it was the size of a 100 yen coin.

Though small, the incision to remove the tumor ran down his grandfather’s entire abdomen.  The circular currency, just 23 millimeters in diameter, was a vivid depiction of his grandfather’s battle with colon cancer, and Yamamoto’s childhood memories of hearing about Japanese surgical practices, established a deep fascination in him for medical robotics.

Before becoming a trainee in the National Science Foundation’s Traineeship in the Advancement of Surgical Technology (NSF TAST) within the Thomas Lord Department of Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science (Duke MEMS), Yamamoto’s early passion for LEGOs and similarly complex and creative building hobbies propelled him to compete in research projects.

While in the seventh grade, he participated in a competition with the theme “Body Forward,” which revolved around biomedical engineering. His team contacted PhD students at UCLA to learn more about medical advancements at the time.

a scientist presents research at a conference
Kent Yamamoto presents research at the Hamlyn Symposium on Medical Robotics at Imperial College London.

When he learned of UCLA’s da Vinci surgical robot, he was hooked. “That was it for me, I was sold right there,” he said.

Invented 23 years ago, the robotic-assisted surgical device is widely known for its ability to enhance surgical procedures with greater dexterity. Over 1,700 devices are installed worldwide. 

“Not only could you move the device with so much precision, there were also so many different tools that you could use remotely,” Yamamoto said. “The incision to the surgery that was mocked up was maybe only 5 centimeters, much smaller than my grandfather’s, and it was fascinating.”

Around the same time, Yamamoto’s grandfather passed away, years after the memorable surgery. It was an inflection point that solidified his future in medical robotics.

“All of that happening connected the dots for me, between my grandfather’s experience and the competition,” he said. “I told myself I want to do this—I didn’t know in what shape or form at the time, but I wanted to make a difference using medical robotics.”

Between my grandfather’s experience and the competition, I told myself I want to do this—I didn’t know in what shape or form at the time, but I wanted to make a difference using medical robotics.

Kent Yamamoto First-year engineering PhD student at Duke

After years of conducting research as an undergraduate, like remodeling CT scans and developing steerable surgical tools, Yamamoto joined Duke MEMS’s PhD program. He soon became an NSF TAST trainee.

He completely bought into its culture of bringing engineers and health practitioners together into a multidisciplinary environment where graduate students thrive. 

The two-year traineeship is meant to provide pathways for engineering and computer science PhD and master’s students to design innovations in fundamentally new technologies.

Siobhan Oca, assistant professor of the practice and assistant director of master’s studies for robotics and autonomy, and Brian Mann, professor of mechanical engineering and materials science and NSF TAST program director, have created a curriculum to highlight these convergent disciplines. 

“The curriculum we created includes two medical robotics courses that have also been major parts of the Certificate in Medical Robotics we have here in Duke MEMS,” Oca explained.

These opportunities to study overlapping research areas rely heavily on upholding a collaborative spirit on campus, with core courses in the NSF TAST program, including Introduction to Medical Robotics and Projects in Medical Robotics and Surgical Technologies.

Medical robotics should be a strength in our department–with Duke’s medical school so close and with a strong engineering presence, the collaborations we have are really unique.

Siobhan Oca Assistant Professor of the Practice and Assistant Director of Master’s Studies for Robotics & Autonomy

“Medical robotics should be a strength in our department–with Duke’s medical school so close and with a strong engineering presence, the collaborations we have are really unique,” Oca said. 

NSF TAST trainees undertake specialized coursework, seminars and experiential activities in the multidisciplinary research areas of AI, surgery, engineering and computer science. Trainees also have an impactful summer opportunity to undergo internships with industry partners and research groups conducting development in the medical technologies field.

Students like Yamamoto have been eager to engage with practitioners and researchers at the industry level, as NSF TAST trainees can participate in deliberate, hands-on opportunities that help advance those objectives.

Full-circle moments for Yamamoto have manifested most while studying as a trainee at Duke MEMS.

“Within the first two months of being here, I said to myself that this was it,” he shared. “I work with clinicians, residents, engineers, and even roboticists. I just didn’t think it was something I’d ever get to do in this capacity.”   

Learn Medical Robotics at Duke

At Duke MEMS, our graduate students learn from Duke’s esteemed surgeons and robotics engineers.

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