Milligan Scholars Solve Real-World Healthcare Dilemmas with Engineering

Robots to perform operations within active MRI machines; studies on aortic heart cells and bone marrow properties; the study of ‘smart material’ memory towards the creation of a new breed of smart surgical tools: the projects pursued by this years’ recipients of the Frank & Barbara Milligan Graduate scholarships sound nearly as far from traditional engineering as you can get.

Yet for Frank Milligan, namesake and donor of the Frank and Barbara Milligan Graduate scholarships – a graduate from the University of Toronto’s Mechanical Engineering (BASc 1948) – these projects are clear examples of the directions that the engineering of the future is headed.

Dean Amon wiht the MIlligan family

From left to right: Dean Amon, Frank Milligan, Barbara Milligan, Ann Milligan. Courtesy Nina Haikara.

“All engineers are problem solvers,” says Mr. Milligan, who first gained interest in the field of biomedical engineering while on a visit to the lab of two doctor friends at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.

It was while he was being shown one of their inventions, medical equipment that relied heavily on engineering principles, that Mr. Milligan realized the necessity of the two fields to be in close dialogue – at a time before biomedical engineering had become the serious field of inquiry it is today.

“Engineers don’t mess around or ask extraneous questions,” he states. “They say, ‘Here’s the problem I have to solve.’”

Solving major biomedical engineering problems with innovative solutions is par for the course for this year’s scholarship recipients.

Second year IBBME PhD candidate Faezeh Heydari Khabbaz, is working on a collaboration with IBBME cross-appointed Professors Andrew Goldenberg  (Department of Mechanical & Industrial Engineering) and James Drake (Head, Neurosurgery, Hospital for Sick Children, Department of Surgery). The project aims to create a guided-surgery robot team to perform bone biopsies on children and infants while these patients are undergoing imaging in an MRI machine.

The robotic team – consisting of a “master” robot being manipulated by a surgeon from outside the MRI room and a “slave” robot performing the same actions inside the MRI board – will reduce the many steps involved in taking biopsies from these small patients from many to one, with the goal of cutting down on the number of complications arising from these unpredictable and lengthy procedures.

The communications system between the various robots and the surgeon who will operate them is the subject of Heydari Khabbaz’s doctoral research. Heydari Kabbaz, who earned Electrical and Computer Engineering as well as a Biomedical Engineering undergraduate degrees in her native Iran before completing the MASc in Biomedical Engineering at McMaster University, calls it a “collaboration heavy” project, where each of the many designers of the project – including three IBBME students – must dialogue on each aspect of their individual parts of the design.

image of Peyman Shokrollahi and Faezeh Heydari Khabbaz

Peyman Shokrollahi (left) and Faezeh Heydari Kabbaz. Courtesy Nina Haikara.

Peyman Shokrollahi, another 2013 Milligan scholarship winner, is designing the sensors that will allow the surgeons to feel the amount of force being used by the robots – as if they were in the MRI machine and performing the biopsies themselves.

Another winning project is the work of Janice Song. A 3rd year PhD candidate, Song is determining how shape memory works with “smart” materials. These materials – polymers and alloys – can be used to create medical devices that can be “trained” to move in predetermined ways depending on applied stimulus.

The work exemplifies another collaborative project, this time between IBBME’s cross-appointed Professors Drake and Hani Naguib (MIE), with an eye towards creating endoscopic instruments for neurological surgeries in infants and children.

“This is a very new idea,” Song describes. “No one else is working on this.”

“One of the best decisions I’ve ever made is to set up the scholarships,” Mr. Milligan relates, citing the profound joy the scholarships have brought his entire family.

The research being funded also represents just the kind of problem-solving acumen valued by their donor.

Entrepreneurial from the time he was a student, once Mr. Milligan returned to his undergraduate studies after a stint in the British navy during WWII, he set up a Christmas tree lot business – opening 3 lots during the first year and expanding to 6 lots the following year. Mr. Milligan founded Thermal & Hydraulic Equipment, Ltd., a company that sells specialized engineering equipment, in 1959.

The Frank & Barbara Milligan scholarships are a yearly endowment that funds students from the Department of Mechanical & Industrial Engineering (MIE) and the Institute of Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering (IBBME) pursuing graduate work in biomedical engineering. The scholarship fund was established in 2007 with funds matched by the Government of Ontario and the University of Toronto, and is awarded to up to 20 students per year. Approximately 120 scholarships have been awarded since the fund was established.