Building a bridge—and a few other handy devices

Fourth-year medical student Robin Brusen is a problem solver.

While earning his bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering at Northwestern University, he and a group of fellow students were charged with finding a quick, easy, cheap way to monitor premature infants in rural South Africa for sleep apnea.

They rigged up a prototype that would buzz if it couldn’t sense the baby’s breathing and then tested it on balloons in their college laboratory. They used the device’s deflection sensor to recharge its own battery. 

“To actually see it working in the way you had intended it to work, it’s a pretty amazing feeling,” says Brusen, who is from Woodbury, Minn. 

He wants more of that feeling. But he also wants to be on the front lines, helping others.

“As an engineer, you get to build all of these really interesting, cool therapies and devices, but you don’t get to see them come to full action. You build them … then you hand them off to the physicians to actually use them to help people,” Brusen says.

After concluding that his future was in medicine, Brusen naturally was drawn to the University of Minnesota Medical School’s dual-degree program in medicine and biomedical engineering.

The program, which allows students to complete both their M.D. and M.S. degrees in five years through a partnership with the College of Science and Engineering, is designed to prepare new physicians as leaders and “bridge builders” between medicine and technology in the ever-evolving biomedical device field.

“I’d like to figure out ways that we can take existing therapies, make them work equally well, but at a fraction of the cost. There have to be ways to make these devices cheaper. That’s one of the things we learned doing this sleep apnea monitor,” Brusen says. “You can basically re-create something that does the same thing but is much simpler and much less expensive.”

Rare opportunities

Through the dual-degree program, Brusen found stimulating work at the University’s Visible Heart Laboratory under the direction of Paul Iaizzo, Ph.D. The lab tests biomedical devices that are nearing clinical use, says Brusen, who found it exciting to experiment with products that could be on the market in just a year or two.

For his master’s project in the Visible Heart Laboratory, Brusen built an apparatus that cooled the heart and perfused it with a preservative solution, in hopes of extending the viability of donor hearts for transplant. (Right now, they can be preserved only four to six hours before the transplant for optimal outcomes.)

That project had “modest success,” he says. “It’s not something you’d want to transplant into somebody, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

And Brusen found that his product design and development class, offered jointly by the Department of Biomedical Engineering, the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and the Carlson School of Management, provided particularly useful real-world experience in bringing an idea to the market in 2011 — “a very, very complicated and expensive process,” he says.

As Brusen completes his last year of medical school, he is thankful for the many awards he has received — the Dr. William G. and Rosemary Kubicek Scholarship, the Scott D. and Susan D. Augustine Biomedical Engineering Research Fellowship, and the Lee and Bonnie Espeland Scholarship — to help him finance his five years of professional education. 

“My scholarship benefactors have been with me every step of the way, easing my financial burden and allowing me to focus on helping others,” he says. 

Bridging the gap

Brusen sees his future in academic medicine, where he’ll be able to treat patients but still conduct research. He’s now applying to internal medicine residency programs because the field offers so many directions for growth, he says.

“I see a lot of parallels between [internal medicine] and engineering. It’s a lot of problem solving,” Brusen says. “The process by which we come up with diagnoses is very similar to engineering design, where we start by brainstorming, coming up with reasons why some work and some don’t, and collecting more information to choose the best one. The goals and degrees of certainty are different, but the essentials of the process are almost exactly the same.”

In the end, Brusen hopes that understanding how a device works from an engineering standpoint will inform his decisions about whether or how to use it with patients. 

“In this day and age, there’s so much technology — there’s no way one person can totally understand everything," he says, "but I guess it would be nice to bridge that gap a little bit.” 

At the suggestion of Iaizzo, his master’s program adviser, Brusen is keeping a small notebook to record the unmet clinical needs he comes across in practice and the little tasks or processes he thinks could be improved. He’ll review those ideas every so often, and when the timing is right, he’ll pursue them.

And though Brusen hasn't earned his M.D. yet, he’s already got a few ideas in that notebook.

Republished with permission from the Medical Bulletin, a publication of the Minnesota Medical Foundation.