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ODU Researcher's Varied Background Informs his Modeling Efforts of the Human Spine

By Brendan O'Hallarn

Michel Audette believes his roundabout journey to an Old Dominion University faculty position in modeling, simulation and visualization engineering (MSVE) made him a better researcher.

Prior knowledge gained from working in fields as diverse as manufacturing, robotics and machine vision informs Audette's research as a medical simulation and surgery planning expert.

By "making anatomical modeling as descriptive as possible," Audette seeks to assist surgeons before they ever enter the operating room. Lately, his research has focused on assembling a detailed model of the human spine, based on a giant collection of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) pictures and other open-source data from around the world.

"From a clinical standpoint, my research has mostly dealt with neurosurgery, but I had an aha moment a few years ago, when a neurosurgeon told me that the bulk of his cases are done on the spine, rather than on the brain," Audette said. "At that point, I saw it as being in my interest to pursue a spine modeling project."

Because the spine links the brain and central nervous system, a greater understanding of its complex web of nerves, blood vessels and vertebrae can lead to breakthroughs in treating Parkinson's disease and other neuromotor disorders - areas where Audette has launched research collaborations.

Audette's own breakthrough involved thinking of medical simulation in a different way.

Medical simulators are different from ones developed for other disciplines, because medical simulation requires as many as three models - one for the human anatomy, one for the actual act of performing surgery, and sometimes a contact model of how human touch will interact with computer applications, known as haptics.

"In both the surgery planning community and the simulation industry, some very important anatomical details were being glossed over," Audette said.

His background in biomedical engineering allows Audette to look at the human body as a system. Research in physiology mandates conversations with surgeons who will actually use the innovation in the operating room. By creating simulations that incorporate the disparate needs of effective medical simulation, Audette hopes to collaborate on technologies that can lead to better surgical outcomes.

"I see my role as a facilitator of worldwide, multidisciplinary collaboration," Audette said. "As we are successful with this, we can do a number of things the surgeon really needs. I am trying to be proactive in initiating collaboration with clinicians, who would be benefiting from what I do."

The risk of not following this maxim is that without paying attention to clinical requirements, a surgical innovation or tool could "gather dust" because of a lack of acceptance by clinicians, Audette said.

"In short, successful biomedical engineering research requires a large dose of humility on the part of the engineer and willingness to engage clinicians in a conversation on any design from the outset, as well as an understanding of current clinical workflow and how the new technology affects it."

After various jobs in flight simulation and welding automation, as well as post-doctoral fellowships in Germany and Japan, Audette joined Old Dominion as a full-time faculty member when he was 48. But colleagues in the Department of Modeling, Simulation and Visualization Engineering say his energy level belies his age.

"Dr. Audette is tireless in providing research opportunities to undergraduate students. I am also amazed at the quality and high reputation of his collaborators in the United States and around the world," said Rick McKenzie, professor and chair of MSVE.

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