PhD student Sergio Machaca awarded NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

July 9, 2019

Robot-assisted surgery offers many advantages over traditional surgery, such as smaller incisions and faster recovery times. While robots lend a helpful hand in the operating room, their current systems come with one major drawback: they don’t have a sense of touch, known as haptic feedback.

In the Haptics and Medical Robotics (HAMR) Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, mechanical engineering doctoral student Sergio Machaca is investigating how haptic feedback can improve robotic surgery training.

“A surgeon can see what the robot sees, but can’t feel what the robot feels. For example, if the surgeon is suturing, they have no sense of the forces involved. It’s almost like tying your shoes but not knowing how hard you are pulling the strings. We want to figure out if adding the dimension of haptic feedback will help novice surgeons improve on surgical tasks,” said Machaca, who earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Drexel University in 2018.

Machaca’s research will now be supported by a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship. The prestigious fellowship, awarded annually to only 2,000 of the country’s most promising graduate students, covers tuition and gives recipients a stipend for three years. Machaca is the fourth mechanical engineer from Hopkins to receive the fellowship in the past four years.

Machaca is testing a new wrist-squeezing device for surgeons to wear while they operate with the da Vinci Surgical System, the most widely used robotic surgical system.

The device, developed by John C. Malone Professor Jeremy Brown, measures forces applied during a surgical task, and squeezes the surgeon’s wrist proportional to the force.

“Using this data, we want to determine if wrist-squeezing helped the surgeon improve on the task – and we also have to determine what it means to improve. We’re interested to see if participants who used the wrist device took less time and used less force to complete the task,” said Machaca. The team is in the process of publishing the results of the study.

Machaca is working on a computer system that can evaluate the robotic surgery skills of a novice surgeon, in addition to the haptic feedback project. As he enters his second year at Hopkins, he plans to apply for a Fulbright Scholarship, a grant that will send him abroad to work with leading haptics researchers in Germany.

Machaca said he enjoys the Hopkins graduate experience outside of the lab. He is an active member of two student organizations aimed at increasing minority representation in STEM. He also enjoys working on DIY projects: for example, he’s currently building his own electric bike.

Machaca attributes his academic success to a close-knit research group, as well as his lab’s collaboration with Johns Hopkins Hospital.

“I’m grateful that I was able to get so involved in these research projects during my first year at Hopkins,” said Machaca. “I see potential in other types of haptic feedback to advance robotic surgery. Imagine if we added a speaker so the surgeon could also feel vibrations – that would give them a better idea of the movement and textures felt by the robot. I’m just excited to investigate new haptic feedback modalities that haven’t been explored before.”

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