Faculty Highlight: Eric Ledet

Bringing the Operating Room into the Classroom

BME Faculty Highlights Series
Professor Eric Ledet and Innovative Teaching

This article is the fourth in a series aimed at spotlighting the faculty in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at RPI. In this series, we will highlight biomedical research areas, cutting edge engineering techniques, student and trainee successes, as well as the broader societal impacts of the work in BME. Stay tuned each month of this academic year for more features, and follow us on Twitter @RPI_BME (https://twitter.com/RPI_BME).

Despite the 7:30am start to class, there was a hum of excitement and alertness among the students in Associate Professor Eric Ledet’s class as they gathered in the semi-circular amphitheater-like classroom. This morning, they were tuning in live to a surgical reconstruction of an anterior cruciate ligament and were bursting with questions to ask the orthopedic surgeon during the procedure.

Marking the tenth time that Clinical Orthopedics and Contemporary Research has been offered at RPI, this semester’s offering featured live surgical procedures, demonstrations and hands-on use of a surgical simulator, and the opportunity to attend clinical grand rounds – all in addition to lectures by Ledet on orthopedic biology, anatomy, and pathology. Practicing clinicians also give guest lectures on current issues relevant to orthopedics, trauma, and sports medicine – sharing their perspectives on clinical needs and constraints while interacting directly with the eager engineering students. All this make for a unique – and popular – class at RPI, one whose format is rarely found in undergraduate engineering curricula anywhere in the country.

The idea for the course began more than a decade ago when Ledet, prior to joining RPI, was the only engineer in the Division of Orthopaedic Surgery at Albany Medical College (AMC). Ledet quickly realized that it was the “biomedical engineer’s responsibility to learn the clinician or surgeon perspective.” Only in this way, Ledet continues, can “synergy and collaboration become much more reasonable” between BMEs and practicing orthopedic surgeons.

Ledet acknowledges that the class as it is today would not have been possible without the strong support of Dr. Richard Uhl, Professor and Division Head of Orthopaedic Surgery at AMC. Leveraging his decades-long collaboration with Uhl, who also holds an Adjunct Professor position at RPI, Ledet is able to bring clinical faculty from AMC to give guest lectures at RPI and coordinate with them to bring the operating room to RPI students. With over 40 students in the class, operations are teleconferenced to the RPI classroom, so that all students can see the surgical procedures as the surgeon would see them. Ledet and Uhl work with Media Operations at RPI as well as technical and operating room support at AMC to enable live camera feeds of the operating room and provide two-way communication between the surgeon and the class.

BME senior John Ramsdell, who like many others enrolled in the class based on recommendations from other students, was struck by the complicated surgical procedures that the class was able to watch live. “As a Biomedical Engineering student,” he adds, “discovering the issues these surgeons experience, has given me an idea of how I can apply the knowledge I’ve learned in school.”

BME junior Katya Kradinova agrees, “[the class] really helped to cement my goal of working in the medical devices company, because it grew my excitement for the topics we learned about, […] and it even gave me some ideas for problems I could work on when I get out in the field.”

Bethany Hanson, another senior in BME, found that the most important skill the class teaches engineers is how to communicate with surgeons. “Dr. Ledet does a stellar job of rephrasing questions from the class and asking his own questions to the surgeons during the live procedures so that we are continuously exposed to ‘doctor lingo’.”

Hanson was also particular impressed by one incident when a visiting clinician “picked up one of the [surgical] tools and flat out said ‘I hate this feature so much. I think it should be designed like this.’ I was not expecting to hear such a blunt dislike of a feature and idea for improvement on a medical device. This interaction just reinforced that biomedical engineers have to cater [their designs] to the surgeons that use their products.”

Now nearing the end of another semester, Ledet reflects on how this unique contribution to the BME curriculum has changed many students’ perspectives on the role of engineering in medicine. Former students have talked about the experiences from this class in interviews for jobs in industry and applications to graduate or medical school. And, Ledet never forgets to credit the clinicians who generously offer their time to present first-hand a “perspective above and beyond what we as engineering faculty members can provide.”