Engineering student bones up on orthopaedics

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND — Luke Duross is getting down to the bare bones of his education this summer.

The 23-year-old graduating mechanical engineering student is working with both real and synthetic bones to help improve people’s flexibility, mobility and range of motion with a company specializing in reconstructive orthopaedic implants. Zimmer designs, tests and develops replacement parts for most joints in the body from fingers and wrists, to knees and ankles.

“They do anything that’s mechanical,” says Duross, who is working at the company’s Winterthur, Switzerland-based experimental biomechanical research division. “They’re doing a lot of (groundbreaking) work with spines and developing implants for spines.”

For his four-month work placement, Duross is tasked with designing experiments to test the durability of existing replacement hips under “the worst possible conditions” — when the joint has the maximum amount of force applied to it.

“It’s not really about the motion of the hip,” he explains, “it’s about the reactionary forces being imparted upon the hip.”

Duross describes the hip implant as a ball snapped into a metallic half-sphere socket, which is then affixed to the pelvis. When the implant works properly, it is capable of holding up even under extreme conditions — like if a person were to carry a box of heavy textbooks up a steep staircase or dead lift a few hundred pounds while crouching. Unfortunately, a prosthetic joint will never be as strong or as durable as a healthy, natural joint.

“It’s like building the perfect car,” says Duross. “It’s a bit of an unattainable goal. We’re just aiming for the best product possible . . . we want to minimize any kind of problems.

“What I’m concerned about is how the metal socket sits inside the bone. The difficult part is not keeping the ball but the socket, in place. You can have a problem with this cup even if the person is just standing.”

Aside from the work itself, which is complicated by its very nature, communication has been a challenge for Duross, who speaks little German and even less of the Swiss-dialect of German common in the north-eastern region of the country.

“(Switzerland) is a beautiful country and has a really interesting culture,” he says, “but it can be difficult to work with a language barrier.”

Duross recalls one particularly challenging phone call with a machinist in a neighbouring region. He needed to communicate complex instructions for the construction of a machine to carry out his experiments. The only problem: Duross could only speak broken German aided by an online dictionary. The machinist spoke even less English.

“It was a really funny conversation,” said Duross. “I use a lot of online translators to find keywords but if you need to communicate something really precise — especially if it’s of a technical nature — it can be challenging.”

Meanwhile, Duross is setting his sights on the biomedical side of engineering while working on Carleton’s Patient Simulator Project. Fourth-year engineering students contribute to a realistic, human-like unit that simulates a variety of medical ailments designed to help new doctors diagnose patients. It contains unique features like a respiratory system to simulate breathing and a life-like abdomen that simulates the conditions after the rupturing of vital organs.

Duross added a pair of eyes made with high-resolution video screens to replicate the dilating and contracting of the pupil. Due, in part, to his innovative design, Duross earned Carleton’s W.E. Cowie Innovation Award last month.

“A lot of the other eyeball simulators use a mechanical device like the shutter on camera,” explains Duross, adding that he wanted to make his ultra-realistic. “Due to the nature of the project, where you’re trying to simulate something people know very well, it’s not very convincing or usable if it’s not very realistic.”

It was Duross’ first time working in the biomedical field. He was also able to work closely with Carleton engineering professors Hanspeter Frei and Donald Russell, who supported his work placement at Zimmer.

“The professors are great and really give the students a chance to be innovative and think outside the box,” he adds.

“It was a really big challenge to work outside of my field a bit but it got me on track to work here in Switzerland.”

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Daniel Reid

By Daniel Reid

Whether it’s scientific breakthroughs, political manoeuvres or loaded technical jargon, Daniel Reid loves to untangle complex ideas to make them accessible to everyone. He is currently an editor at @newsrooms and is a former web editor at @CTVNews and homepage editor at @TheLoopCA. You can argue with him on Twitter at @ahatrack.

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