Building microtools and inter-institutional collaborations

6/5/2023 Bethan Owen

A multi-institutional team including BIOE professor Holly Golecki and MechSE senior Jorge Jimenez published their paper, “A Stiff-Soft Composite Fabrication Strategy for Fiber Optic Tethered Micro-Tools,” in Advanced Materials Technologies.

Written by Bethan Owen

Bioengineering is a discipline that frequently combines academia, industry, and the natural world all at once. Professor Holly Golecki co-leads an exciting collaborative project between the Department of Bioengineering and Sandia National Lab’s Center for Integrated Technologies (CINT) in New Mexico that represents this important balance. 

This partnership pairs a faculty member with a CINT scientist–in this case, Professor Holly Golecki and Dr. Bryan Kaehr–and then provides an opportunity for Grainger engineering students to work at the lab in-person while receiving mentorship from the attached professor. 

Most recently, MechSE senior Jorge Jimenez had the chance to work at Sandia through CINT’s Summer Research Program and co-author the related paper, “A Stiff-Soft Composite Fabrication Strategy for Fiber Optic Tethered Micro-Tools” with Golecki, Kaehr, and others. The paper was recently published in Advanced Materials Technologies and can be read here

Microtools for Better Surgeries 

This collaborative research project explored what it would take to fabricate a new kind of micro-medical tool for performing specific surgeries, and whether that tool could become modular to meet the needs of different techniques and situations. 

“We built in environmentally-responsive gels that can actuate in different environments in the body,” said Golecki. “And from there we could actuate a 3D printed resin tool on the end of an optical fiber. Essentially, we have an optical fiber that we can use to navigate through the body and control the tool.” 

A sample of different tool heads
A sample of different tool heads

The tool will have different heads, including one for grasping and one for cutting, which makes it ideal for micro biopsies and other delicate internal procedures. The tiny size of these tools gives them the ability to reduce recovery time for patients post-procedure, while it can also shine light and send information down the fiber mid-surgery.

The size of this particular design sets it apart. “We definitely drew inspiration from tools that exist on a much larger scale, but they don't exist at this size scale yet,” said Golecki.

As the technology develops, this device could be able to detect different disease states, perform biopsies on a very small scale for early cancer detection, or deliver therapies in response to local infections, giving it a promising future in the medical field. 

While it takes advantage of optical fibers, temperature gel, and other high-tech advances, the tool has roots in the natural world. One of the interchangeable cutting ends of the tool in particular is designed based on a bird’s beak, while another is based on insect pincers.

“The reason animals act and move is for their survival,” said Jimenez, who played a key role in these bioinspired designs. “Everything they do is efficient. I liked the idea of replicating that.”

Through their testing, the team was able to establish the modularity of their design and are excited to move forward with the project.

A Collaborative Team

Across the span of several semesters, this collaboration has given undergraduate students the opportunity to learn more about what they can do with their engineering degree. Students also get a taste of some of the broader implications of lab work, including exposure to some of the national security challenges that scientists at Sandia Labs work on.

These unique learning experiences showed Jimenez options for his future that he hadn’t considered before.

From left to right: Holly Golecki, Michael Gallegos, Jorge Jimenez, Bryan Kaehr, and Georgia Kaufman
From left to right: Holly Golecki, Michael Gallegos, Jorge Jimenez, Bryan Kaehr, and Georgia Kaufman

“Before coming to Sandia Labs I was thinking about just completing my bachelor's and working afterwards,” said Jimenez. “But I really enjoyed the freedom of a lab. I could see myself moving forward into a master’s now.”

Jimenez first joined this project through Grainger’s ARISE program. ARISE supports engineering students from underrepresented backgrounds, with an emphasis on providing practical experiences.

“These first-time experiences are crucial to helping students explore what path within engineering they want to pursue,” said Aldo Montagner, ARISE Coordinator. “They allow them to learn through hands-on, real-life activities in addition to their coursework.”

Jimenez was able to receive hands-on experiences of all kinds, from creating cutting tools to co-authoring and presenting research, which led to an Honorable Mention for his poster presentation on the subject at the Materials Research Society in Boston.

“It was a really good experience, just because it's something I never expected,” he said. “Not only was I learning from different people about their research, but other people were interested in talking to me. They were excited to hear what I had to say.”

This collaboration between the Department of Bioengineering, Sandia National Laboratories, and ARISE is an arrangement that furthers bioengineering research and solves problems in the medical field, while also making a positive impact in the lives of individual students.

“It’s exciting to see a student like Jorge gain confidence and skills over the course of an internship,” said Sandia Labs’ Dr. Kaehr. “His talk at the end of the summer to his peers and other researchers drew genuine excitement from the crowd.”


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This story was published June 5, 2023.