Students get real-world experience at intersection of engineering, space, medicine


The summer spent by three Rice engineering students in a ninth-floor lab of the BioScience Research Collaborative (BRC) could be summed up in one word: transformative.

Armed with a high-fidelity scanner and a 3-D printer, they literally transformed spools of licorice-string-thick plastic filament into splints, forceps, syringes and other medical tools. Their efforts have the potential to transform approaches to diagnostic and therapeutic medicine both in space and on Earth.

Engineering students

Kevin King uses a high-fidelity scanner to capture an image of Zoe Roberts’ arm while in the background Millie Antwi-Nsiah works on medical tools at her lab bench. Photo by Jeff Fitlow.

The trio — Millie Antwi-Nsiah, a junior majoring in bioengineering, and seniors Kevin King and Zoe Roberts, both mechanical engineering majors — worked in the Exploration Medicine Lab of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, which is housed in the BRC. The NSBRI brings together researchers from NASA, academia and industry to study health risks related to long-duration manned spaceflight and to develop medical technologies needed for extended missions, such as one to Mars.

Under the mentorship of Rice alum Jimmy Wu ’01, chief engineer at NSBRI, the students studied how a high-fidelity scanner and a 3-D printer could be used to create customized, print-on-demand medical resources. King and Roberts, who worked at the NSBRI through its Space Biomedical Science and Engineering Apprenticeship Program, developed an efficient process of 3-D printing personalized immobilization splints from 3-D scans of a patient’s injury site. Antwi-Nsiah evaluated the contents of the medical kits that are currently aboard the International Space Station and determined which parts of the kit could be 3-D-printed. She worked at NSBRI through Rice’s Sustaining Excellence in Research Scholar program.

“The potential of 3-D printers holds great promise to address some of the challenges of human exploration into deep space, such as the need to minimize supplies and excess weight onboard the spacecraft, yet provide enough spare parts as hardware breaks,” Wu said. “Self-sufficiency will be key when you’re talking about a mission that will take astronauts millions of miles away from resupply options. A 3-D printer could be like having an on-demand machine shop in space.”

3-D printer

A 3-D printer in the NSBRI’s Exploration Medicine lab prints layer upon layer of material as it builds a wrist splint designed by King and Roberts. Photo by Jeff Fitlow.

Three-D printers take a digital file of a 3-D model, heat a plastic filament at relatively low-temperatures and build a physical object by laying down that melted plastic layer by layer. Three-D printing in space is already a reality: In 2014, a 3-D printer was tested on the International Space Station and used to produce a ratchet wrench. In June, a permanent 3-D printer was installed on the ISS to continue developing the technology and how it can be used in space.

“Working in the Exploration Medicine lab, I’ve seen and learned about many different applications of 3-D printing and what types of problems it can solve,” Antwi-Nsiah said. “I think that 3-D printing will have a significant impact on the field of bioengineering in the near future. In fact, it is already being used in various bioengineering research areas.”

The overlap of applications that address real-world problems in space and on Earth was a compelling element of the students’ work, they said.

Engineering student

Millie Antwi-Nsiah and Jimmy Wu discuss the medical tools she produced with a 3-D printer. Photo by Jeff Fitlow.

“I would expect the problems of space to be completely separated from the problems experienced on Earth because it’s a completely different environment,” Antwi-Nsiah said. “However, I’ve learned that a lot of the problems that humans face in space have significant analogs on Earth, which means that solving these issues can have a real impact on problems being faced on Earth.”

Roberts said she and King were particularly excited about their work — essentially creating a method to measure the fit of a wearable medical device such as a splint or prosthetic limb. “Our work is intended for use in space but it has direct applications on Earth as well,” she said.

“Another thing I found super interesting since starting here was the crossroads of orthopedics and mechanical engineering,” Roberts said.

The students collaborated with an orthopedic hand fellow from Baylor College of Medicine Department of Orthopedic Surgery and learned about mechanical engineering concepts like stress and strain, but applied to human bones.

Engineering students

From left, Zoe Roberts, Jeffrey Sutton, Kevin King and Jimmy Wu look at computer models of wrist splints to be printed on a 3-D printer. Photo by Jeff Fitlow.

“I have often thought that mechanical engineering can be very dry, but learning about this application really helped me regain interest in it again,” Roberts said.

King said, “As an engineer, it was particularly interesting to learn about the medical side of space travel. I was aware of some of the issues before, but I only knew the proposed engineering solutions rather than the medical solutions.”

For example, he said, he knew engineers are working on making physical barriers to protect astronauts from radiation in space. “I learned that scientists are also conducting research to see if there are certain medications astronauts could take to help their bodies cope with the radiation affects,” he said.

Such robust collaborative efforts are the heart and soul of the NSBRI, which was established in 1997 and has been housed at Rice’s BRC since 2011.

Jeffrey Sutton, CEO, president and director of the NSBRI, said, “Collaboration is what the NSBRI is all about — engaging researchers, faculty and students at leading academic institutions, such as Rice, and scientists and engineers at NASA, other federal agencies, industry and international partners with the goal of enhancing human health in space as well as on Earth. The BRC facilitates this kind of collaboration; it is where transformative research is truly occurring — at the intersection of medicine and technology.”

“This experience has really opened my mind to working in the space industry,” Roberts said. “I used to be on the fence and unsure of why it was important to send humans to space other than for exploration, but now I am fully onboard.

“It is so inspiring to be surrounded by professionals who have such diverse backgrounds and have done really impressive work, but are so excited to help us with our work and help us with our upcoming careers,” she said.


About Jennifer Evans

Jennifer Evans is a senior editor in the Rice's Office of Public Affairs.