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Georgia Tech, Emory unite to train health care roboticists

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Jackie Nemeth

Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University faculty members are uniting to train the next generation of engineering students in healthcare robotics technologies, so they can better understand the changing needs of patients and their caregivers and healthcare providers.

With the support of a five-year, $2.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation National Research Traineeship program, this faculty team will create new bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree programs and concentrations in healthcare robotics – the first degree programs in this area in the United States.

Led by Ayanna M. Howard, the Linda J. and Mark C. Smith Chair Professor in the Georgia Tech School of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE), this initiative will blend Emory’s medical and clinical expertise and Tech’s robotics and engineering know-how to train engineering students in robotics, physiology, neuroscience, rehabilitation and psychology. The program also aims to increase the appeal of STEM fields to a wide range of people, including women, underrepresented minorities and people with disabilities.

The U.S. population is living longer and is becoming older and more racially and ethnically diverse. In addition, the number of younger people living with a lifelong disability is also increasing, including 52,351 post-9/11 military veterans with combat injuries and 6.4 million children with developmental disorders or delays. Fifty million people are also diagnosed annually with neurological/ neurodegenerative diseases.

"Providing innovative solutions to help improve an individual’s quality of life continues to emerge as a growing need," says Howard, who leads the Human-Automation Systems Lab in ECE. "Keeping this need in mind, we will train engineers not only to develop robotics technologies, but also learn how to work with and listen to the needs of the technology end users – patients, caregivers and healthcare professionals."

Three faculty join Howard’s leadership team. Charlie Kemp, an associate professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME) at Georgia Tech and Emory University and director of the Healthcare Robotics Lab in BME, focuses on intelligent mobile robots for physical assistance in the context of healthcare. Lena H. Ting, a BME professor with an appointment in Emory School of Medicine’s Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, Division of Physical Therapy, and co-director of the Neural Engineering Center, will integrate human needs related to accessibility and rehabilitation to inform the design of robotics solutions.

Randy D. Trumbower, an assistant professor in both BME and Physical Therapy and the director of research within Rehabilitation Medicine at Emory, will work on interfacing robotics and physical therapy techniques.

Additional faculty will serve as student advisors, including Wendy Rogers, professor in Tech’s School of Psychology; Jun Ueda, an associate professor from Tech’s George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering; Steven L. Wolf, a professor in Emory’s Division of Physical Therapy; and Minoru Shinohara, an associate professor in Tech’s School of Applied Physiology.

The team will focus first on developing the doctoral and master’s programs, with the goal of having a mini-cohort of PhD students in spring 2016 and starting the official graduate degree programs next fall. The undergraduate degree will combine the five-year, BS/MS degree program and undergraduate thesis option, allowing students to build a foundation for an eventual MS thesis. The graduate program will build on the highly successful multidisciplinary robotics PhD program at Georgia Tech.

"We’re excited about this opportunity to further enhance and grow our world-class educational programs in robotics," says Kemp, who has served on the robotics PhD program’s leadership team since its inception in 2007.

A sampling of these courses includes:

• Interfacing Engineering and Rehabilitation, taught by Trumbower, engages both engineering and clinical students. They will learn equally from clinical experts about their target demographics and the issues they face and from engineering faculty about how robotics can address these challenges. Members from collaborating medical organizations and non-profit agencies will regularly visit the class to talk with students. Discussion points and group projects will be derived from real case studies using persons with physical challenges as technology consumers and consultants.

"In order for clinicians to play a more active role in the development, evaluation and implementation of robotics technologies in rehabilitation, they must first more comfortably engage engineers who develop and test these technologies," says Trumbower. "Mutually, in order for engineers to play a more active role in the development, evaluation and implementation of rehabilitation technologies, they must first more comfortably engage clinicians who evaluate and treat patients. This course provides a novel learning approach for this type of collaborative interaction."

• A course on ethics, privacy and regulations in medicine and biomedical robotics will be offered, where students learn about considerations that must be addressed when designing and deploying robotic systems for health.

"While engineering students at Tech are required to take ethics courses, certain areas like privacy or statistical analysis have different nuances in the healthcare arena," says Howard. "For instance, what does ‘good’ mean as a healthcare roboticist vs. a traditional roboticist? How do you manage privacy and share information from doctor to doctor, and is there a correlation to a robot in the doctor’s office doing the same thing with a robot in a patient’s home?"

• Interdisciplinary research training will provide students with hands-on healthcare experience during their first summer in the program. Matched with mentors in both engineering and healthcare, students will do one week of clinical rotations, where they will observe medical practices and learn about current problems in healthcare.

Students will then conduct eight weeks of research using robotics to address healthcare issues discovered during rotations. Clinical partners with which students may work include Emory Medical School, Shepherd Center, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Emory ALS Center, Atlanta Area Agency on Aging, and the Veterans Administration.

Additional components of the healthcare robotics degree programs are required communications training and availability of entrepreneurship activities for interested students. All students will receive communications training so that they can interact effectively with different audiences. Examples include academic and professional communications; talking to patients or patient groups about their work; giving media interviews, writing press releases, and producing short videos about their work; and communicating with the general public. Trainees interested in entrepreneurship will be able to participate in a Georgia Tech student incubator during their second summer in the program, or they may intern at a medical startup company in the Atlanta area.

Working with engineering students to think about and design their technologies for the benefit of their target populations will be an exciting challenge, according to Howard. "Working in healthcare robotics will be a learning process, where there is no equation in the book that can be derived. It will require looking at a problem, working and talking with others, and developing a solution by being creative and thinking outside of the box," says Howard. "This will be a different way of thinking for engineers, and when our students graduate, they will be exceptional because of that." 

Sources for statistics: National Center for Education Statistics, Congressional Research Service/U.S. Department of Defense, and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

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