In this episode of “Faculty in Focus,” we catch up with Dr. Eric Bubar, Associate Professor of Engineering at Marymount, and get a first-hand look at his groundbreaking engineering research in areas like 3D printing, virtual reality, bioprinting and more.
What are the topics of your current engineering research?
We do a ton of research and it’s really focused on, I think, two general areas mainly. It’s doing low resource engineering – so that doesn’t necessarily mean low technology. We use a lot of 3D printing and additive manufacturing in our engineering, and a lot of microcontrollers and microelectronics – but those tools are very low cost compared to traditional engineering tools. We use those to create assistive technologies, and then we release them open source so that anybody can access it and access the files, 3D print stuff, build the things we’re building and help people out.
A lot of the tools we build are things like helping you pick up a cup if you’re having trouble with that. If you have mobility issues, we’re trying to help make wheelchairs electronic. We’re making a lot of prosthetic and orthotic devices for assistive limbs. We’re doing both body-powered and electronic prosthetics. We’re starting to explore how we can use 3D printing to do lower limb prosthetic technologies.
That’s one area of engineering, assistive technologies…and then we started to move into doing virtual reality engineering and exploring all the things you could do in the so-called ‘metaverse.’ We have a lab of about eight Oculus Quest 2’s, and we develop video games. We interface those video games with Arduino microcontrollers so that we can track your whole body moving inside of those games, and use that towards physical therapy purposes largely…to help with rehab, make rehab more fun and ‘gamify’ the physical therapy and exercise experience.
Why is it important for you to make your engineering work available as open source?
A big issue with assistive technologies is lack of access, so you want to remove as many barriers as you can to people having access to the technologies they need. I think the World Health Organization estimates that about only 10 percent of the world population has access to the assistive tools that they need to have their ideal lives. So, one way that you can make things more accessible to everybody is to make it freely available – make the engineering plans available so people can produce it themselves, and give them the tools that they can do that with.
How do you give your Engineering students hands-on learning opportunities?
I like to think that my engineering lab is first and foremost a teaching lab, and I teach them how to use the tools so that they can make the technologies themselves. It’s not just my ideas, it’s not what I think – it’s usually what the students think.
In fact, we got started with all this 3D printing stuff because a student saw a news story about seven years ago about a little kid that was given a 3D-printed Star Wars hand…and she said, ‘I want to do that.’ She went to our department and asked, and I was the physicist here and I was the closest to an engineer…so they said, ‘okay Eric, figure out 3D printing.’ So I did, and then she told her friends and all of her friends wanted to come into the engineering lab. So now, we get 30 to 40 students every semester coming through the lab, printing a hand, printing a finger, printing an arm, printing some kind of tool to help people. That really helps to solidify their understanding of science, appreciation for engineering and learning that technology so that they can make a difference in somebody’s life.
What guides your philosophical approach to teaching in the classroom?
I think what students like about my courses is since I teach Physics and Astronomy, and those are traditionally pretty difficult courses for students…there’s lots of math, lots of quantitative calculations…so what I try to do is not bore them and inundate them with lots of mathematical theory. I have them actually doing stuff and building things and using the math as a tool to accomplish a task. I challenge them to think, ‘oh, we learned about rotating motion, right? How could you use that to make your life easier?’ We had a bunch of Biology students and they were like, ‘well, we’re working with petri dishes and we have to move our hands around and spread around bacteria and stuff, and it gets sore and it takes a lot of time. So, can we automate that process?’ It was working with them to understand, ‘okay, this is the biology aspect of what you need and this is what you’re using it for. Now, let’s take the physics that I know how to do really well and we’ll work together and build something collaboratively.’ So that really helps.
I try to look at their interests and build off of that to link them to my expertise. The other thing I like to do is I use pop culture a lot. I think superhero movies have helped me a ton, because now everybody loves superhero movies! I grew up loving comic books – lots of Spiderman, X-men and all of those. And now, the technologies that you see in those movies and those comic books…we can build things that look like that. So students get really excited – and when you reference movies or movie stars, any kind of pop culture reference, they will grab on to that and I’m happy to play with them in that space.
How are you using virtual reality to help physical therapy patients?
It’s a very new area, because virtual reality has just become kind of affordable. People have started doing studies to figure out what does this add to the experience for patients, and the one example…the coolest study that I’ve seen, kind of literally cool…is there were burn victims that really needed to do exercises to restore their muscles and get their muscles working again and working properly. But it was painful because their skin was very warm because of those burns. So what they did is they put the burn victims inside of a virtual reality headset, and inside of that headset was a snowy scene. They recreated a very wintry atmosphere in VR, and that tricked the brain. The brain actually was thinking that it was colder, so it was cooling down the patients and they didn’t feel the warmth from their burn while they were doing their PT. They could accomplish it because their brains were tricked into not being so hot, and thinking they were cold. That’s one really cool aspect.
Also, a difficulty with PT, a lot of times, is the patients don’t understand how to do the exercise, or they don’t want to do the exercise because it’s no fun…particularly for children. What we can do is we can make it a game, so we make it fun! You’re moving your body around, and maybe you’re controlling Candy Crush…a ridiculously popular kind of iPhone game…but you’re doing it in VR, so you’re completely immersed in a world of candy. That sounds fantastic to me! And you can track their motions as they’re doing that, and the PT can look at that data and they can see even remotely from doing virtual health care…they can look at the data and see, ‘oh, they’re moving their arm a little bit off and they might injure themselves. I need them to slow down a little bit, so I need to tell them that.’ We can also program that into an app so that the virtual reality headset will track their motions and tell them, ‘oh, you’re moving your arm a little bit faster than you should. Maybe you should slow down a little bit,’ and can give you a digital display to tell you that you’re doing things correctly, so that you actually do get the full benefits of your PT.
Tell us how you use 3D printers to create exoskeletons for patients.
Exoskeletons is another new area that we’ve just started getting into, and what you do is you actually 3D print things layer by layer. If you’ve ever used a hot glue gun, something like that, that’s all a 3D printer is – it just works in 3D. So you lay down a little layer of plastic and then it moves up, lays a layer on top of that, a layer on top of that, and you build into whatever design you want.
What you can do is you can use CAD software and you can either get a 3D scan of your patient or your user, and you can design an exoskeleton that will actually strap straight onto their body…or, you can do it kind of more generally, and what you can do is use the thermoformability of the plastics we use. That basically means you can heat it up and you can mold it into different shapes. We traditionally will take a 3D-printed device that could be the base of an exoskeleton, and we heat it up and mold it directly around their arms…so we get the exact shape and we get a very nice fit for them. And then, on that exoskeleton, we can hook up a motor that supplements their motions and really helps provide a little bit of support to them if they’re struggling to get through an exercise or something like that.
What about the many applications of 3D bioprinting?
Bioprinting is a whole new space. Whereas 3D printing was pretty new about seven years ago, now it’s kind of pretty standardized. You can find 3D printers at Best Buy, Amazon, all over the place for a couple hundred dollars. Bioprinting uses the same exact principles, pretty much more or less the same exact machines. But where it gets fancy is instead of it being a hot glue gun, it’s a very fancy kind of syringe-based system where you have to worry about the materials that you’re using.
With bioprinting, for lack of a better term, we’re printing with jello. And what you do with that jello is you make sure that cells like the jello. You can infuse the jello with actual living cells, and then you can 3D print with those cells…and then you take whatever you print, and you stick it in a traditional biology lab to create whatever kind of tissue that you wanted to make. You can also do lots of other experiments – so traditionally with bioprinting, you would use this jello with cells inside of it and 3D print a general shape of an ear, if you wanted to make an ear. And then you would take that and you would stick that in an incubator or something for a couple months, and you would let the cells grow. You’d melt away the gelatin and end up with an actual ear that’s made out of cells. It’s crazy!
Other things you can do…you can do something called microfluidics. It’s called a ‘lab on a chip’…so with a microfluidic device, you 3D print super, super small structures. You use ‘bio inks,’ biocompatible things, basically jello…and you carve little channels into those little bio inks. And then, you can start putting little microchips onto this little bio ink…and you can create a lab on a chip. It’s about the size of maybe an SD card, but it’s got lots of tiny little microchannels. You can use those little microchannels and, say, you take a drop of the patient’s blood. You can take that one little drop and run it through this little lab on a chip. It can go through all these little channels into different rooms that you design onto this chip, and each one of those little rooms can test for something different. You could do a whole laboratory worth of tests on this tiny little chip with just one tiny little drop of blood, and you can do it very cheaply and very customized to anybody.
Anything else you’d like to touch on?
One of the biggest things that we’re emphasizing here, especially as we grow into our new Engineering program, is we want our students to be in the labs, in the engineering labs, building stuff every single semester. And the stuff that we’re going to have you building isn’t going to be stuff that just goes and sits in the closet somewhere.
We’re not going to have you build a drone…while that’s very cool, that drone might just go sit in the closet and nobody ever uses it. We’re going to try to have you building technologies that people can then use – so maybe you build a drone, but you build it specifically for delivery of medications in Guatemala. So then, we send it to health care providers in Guatemala so they can use that drone to deliver medicines to rural places, high-up places that they could otherwise not really travel effectively to. Your technologies that you build in your classes are going to go to help people, and then as you start doing research projects, same thing. You’re just going to keep kicking it up a level every single year.