When it comes to engineering and robotics, you might say that CTY alumna Simone Braunstein has the touch.
Simone has spent the last couple of years creating a device to improve robotic surgery. Using computer consoles, robotic surgeons insert small instruments through tiny incisions and guide them to tiny spaces in the body human hands can’t reach. The result is faster recovery times as well as fewer, smaller scars.
That’s all great for patients. Nonetheless, surgical outcomes are no better than traditional surgery, partly because robotic surgeons have no sense of touch. Without it, they cannot feel when a needle pokes through a piece of tissue, or how hard they are pulling the thread when tying sutures.
Simone wanted to change that. Working with the Harvard Biodesign Lab, the 18-year-old designed a device that restores the sense of touch for surgeons and can help them reduce procedural errors. Her prototype has three parts: a gripper that makes contact with part of the patient’s body, a control glove that goes on the surgeon’s hand, and a control board that powers the system. When the gripper touches part of the patient’s anatomy, it relays the same degree of pressure back inside the glove.
In May, Simone won the top award in the Robotics and Intelligent Machines category at the 2016 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. We caught up with Simone to ask her a few questions before she leaves for Harvard for freshman year.
How did you become so interested in robotics?
My grandmother and mother both suffer from the same congenital heart defect. When I was participating in a seventh grade FIRST Robotics research program, we watched a demonstration of the da Vinci robotic surgical system. I saw how the robotic surgical grippers could unwrap a tootsie roll—and how easy it would be to slice through the tootsie roll accidentally, since the surgeon had no sense of touch.
Shortly thereafter, my grandmother needed open-chest surgery because minimally invasive robotic surgery was not available. Thankfully, her surgery was a success. But I wanted to help make a less invasive surgical option available for more procedures, one that would also reduce complications in those surgeries.
What was the first thing you ever coded?
A LEGO Mindstorms-based Ferris wheel, at CTY’s Mount Holyoke three-week residential robotics program after fifth grade. That class was absolutely the academic inspiration for the next seven years of my life. I spent the next four years in FIRST Robotics, and then several years doing research into soft robotics [robots made from pliable materials].
CTY provided the excellent foundation in hard science I needed to pursue lab-based engineering research at universities while in high school. I took Introduction to Robotics, The Physics of Engineering, Flight Science, Electrical Engineering, Fast-Paced High School Chemistry, and Advanced Placement Physics 1.
CTY is also a huge tradition in my family. My brother and sister and I fondly remember CTY social events, ice cream socials, and the canons, including American Pie and Rock Lobster.
What was the most difficult day you spent working creating your robotic controller? How did you deal with it?
On my last day of my engineering internship at Harvard, I was scheduled to present the final prototype, for two years of work, to my lab’s principal investigator, Professor Conor Walsh. During my practice run-through, due to a control malfunction, my soft robot exploded! I had to quickly remake that portion of my design in two hours – even though it usually took me five hours. Luckily, many years working on a FIRST Robotics team had prepared me to work efficiently under pressure.
Simone explaining her project to a student group at the 2016 Intel ISEF.
As we speak, you’re at the London School of Economics. What are you studying there?
I’m studying macroeconomics through a summer program at LSE, before I begin at Harvard University this fall. It’s a fascinating time to be studying economics at LSE because the UK has just voted to leave the European Union. Macroeconomics covers all the topics impacting the European and global economy that affected the Brexit vote. These include economic growth, monetary policy, currency markets, labor, unemployment, and government debt. I hope I can combine an understanding of economics and business with my engineering knowledge in my career.
Your start-up company is called Paradox Robotics. How did you choose this name?
I had purchased some of the parts needed for the electropneumatic control board from the recommended list Harvard published on an open source website (www.softroboticstoolkit.com). But I found it difficult and expensive to purchase the many long lead-time parts from U.S. and international vendors, and then troubleshoot the engineering needed for assembly. It was quite a paradox that it was so “hard” to experiment with “soft” robots. So I founded Paradox Robotics to supply a pre-packaged soft robotics fluidic control board kit. Our tag line is “Because soft robotics doesn’t have to be hard.”
How do you like to spend your free time?
I run and hike a lot, and I love to play with my two enormous giant schnauzer dogs! You can follow them on Instagram: @giantschnauzertwins.