Written by Hannah Weems

Two student teams from the Department of Biomedical Engineering placed in the top three teams overall at the 2021 UAB Expo, winning second and third place for the submission of their senior design projects.

Each year, BME undergraduates have the opportunity to participate in the Expo, offered by Service Learning and Undergraduate Research, celebrating excellence in research, creative activity, and scholarship by showcasing students’ academic endeavors. The winning projects were created as part of BME's capstone senior design course, in which students are required to present a solution to a clinical problem provided by a client and then develop a functional prototype and a plan for product commercialization. They must follow guidelines such as adhering to a $400 design budget.

2021 student teamFour of the five members of the second-place team are shown here working on their prototype. Pictured are (from left) Russ Fuller, Lara Tapy, Jason Zhang, and Isabella Reed.Recent BME seniors Russ Fuller, Adam Luechtefeld, Isabella Reed, Lara Tapy, and Jason Zhang made up the team of student engineers named as second place winners for their collaborative senior design project submission, an intraoperative colorectal cancer tumor locator. The team’s design responded to the need for a more accurate and expeditious way for gastrointestinal surgeons to locate colorectal tumor margins intraoperatively in the presence of adipose tissue, resulting in a reduction in surgery time and an increase in the amount of bowel preserved. The team worked alongside Greg Kennedy, M.D., Ph.D., director, Division of Gastrointestinal Surgery, to develop the prototype.

The prototype’s design suspended metallic nanoparticles into a liquid that was injected into the topmost layer of colorectal tissue where it hardened due to an increase in temperature. The hardened consistency was achieved through the use of a sensitive hydrogel which can be detected by a laparoscopic metal detector to determine the presence of colorectal tumors. Testing of the prototype occurred on silicone models using a 10-gauge needle with the approval of Dr. Kennedy. The team has filled preliminary disclosure documents with the Bill L. Harbert Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in pursuit of a patent for their design. Each team member graduated with their bachelor’s degrees on Saturday, May 1 and is looking to the future. Fuller will begin his medical degree this summer at UAB; Leuchtefeld is considering a master’s degree in engineering from UAH; Reed has accepted a full-time position at Pennington Biomedical Research; Tapy will enter the regulatory and intellectual property side of the biomedical device industry; and Zhang will pursue his Ph.D from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in biological engineering.  

pediatric traction walker2021The UAB Expo’s third-place team, made up of recent BME undergraduates Amy Heerten, Chase Newton, and Ian Svantesson, developed a pediatric traction walker in response to the lack of halo gravity traction walkers for patients with severe scoliosis. Scoliosis of this nature is debilitating and is treated with halo gravity traction, a method of pulling the head and spine in a slow, upward stretch, accomplished by attaching a metal halo to a pulley system over a period of time. These walkers are not commercially available, so the team developed a pediatric traction walker allowing pediatric patients to have improved hospital mobility while reducing the risk of harm and preventing a lengthy implementation time. This team’s final prototype was created with adjustable handles to accommodate patient height; is welded from steel to prevent collapse; and is built with a gym weight system for accurate, safe, and reliable application of traction. The team’s problem was provided by Rhett Wheeler, P.T., D.P.T., director of Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy at Children’s of Alabama. He was very pleased with the final design, saying, “I was particularly happy to see that the team fabricated something we can potentially utilize once a few modifications are made.”

This spring, 10 BME student teams presented senior design projects to their professors and peers on Friday, April 23 via Zoom. “All 10 groups did an excellent job,” says Dale Feldman, Ph.D., associate professor in BME. Their prototypes include a game controller attachment for children living with hand disabilities, an assistive device for unilateral pediatric hand weakness, a bite block for spinal surgery, exercise motivation for patients with dementia, mobility stimulation for children utilizing gait trainers, a therapeutic exoskeleton for patients with hand weakness, and a device for more accurate photogrammetry for maxillofacial prostheses.

The UAB Undergraduate Summer Expo will take place July 26-30, 2021. Participants will practice and strengthen their presentation skills, exchange research experience and ideas, and receive feedback from faculty and peers.

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BioHorizons is a Birmingham company whose history is rooted in UAB. Today, thanks to a growing and successful co-op program, it appears that BioHorizons and UAB will continue to be linked far into the future.

The dental-implant company, which started as a spinoff of research from the UAB Schools of Engineering and Dentistry, has hired more than a dozen UAB alumni and students over the past 28 years. More recently, though, its co-op program has begun to bring in current engineering undergraduates—creating a talent pipeline for students to get a head start in a growing industry.

“Hands-on experience has always been a key element of engineering education,” said Neil Adams, director of the Engineering Career Center. “The success of our program depends on strong co-op and intern partners, like BioHorizons, who offer quality experiences to our students so that they apply their engineering knowledge while also learning how to be a contributing part of a professional organization. We are proud of this continued partnership and look forward to supporting Blazer engineering co-ops at BioHorizons for many years to come.”

A Blazer Legacy

BioHorizons was started in 1995 by the late Martha Bidez, Ph.D., then a faculty member in the School of Engineering who would serve as the company’s first CEO before selling the company and returning to UAB in 2009. Over the years, the company has hired a number of UAB alumni, including several members of its leadership team (see sidebar).

In 2016, however, the company’s ties to UAB got a little closer when Ashley Boggs became the first UAB undergraduate to join the BioHorizons co-op program—a program that provides students the opportunity to work full-time at the company for three semesters, alternating with school. The experience is paid, and students work alongside engineers throughout their time at the company.

Boggs extended her co-op by working part-time at the company until she was hired full time after she graduated in 2018. Today, she is a Digital Dentistry Engineering Manager, and she credits her co-op experience for opening her eyes to possibilities she had never previously considered.

“I had a vague idea that I wanted to work with implants—like hips, knees, ankles—but I didn’t know anything about the dental-implant industry at all,” said Boggs. “During my sophomore year, I went to the Engineering Career Center and told them that I couldn’t keep sitting in class doing problems from a book. They told me about a local company called BioHorizons that was doing on-campus interviews.”

The interview changed Boggs’s personal career trajectory, but her story is not an unusual one. While the engineering curriculum prepares students for a wide variety of careers, it’s often that first on-the-job experience that opens eyes and doors to career opportunities in fields students may have never been aware of.

That was the case for UAB graduate Jonathan Gordon, another former co-op participant who now works as a packaging engineer for BioHorizons. “I started out on a pre-med track, but coming from a very small town to UAB was a big transition,” Gordon said. “I dropped the pre-med route pretty quickly and started looking for other options.”

Like Boggs, the Engineering Career Center helped connect Gordon with a co-op position at BioHorizons, and that, in turn, led to full-time employment. “I realized pretty quickly that I love this industry. It’s exciting to be a part of this.”

An Undergraduate Pipeline

Although Boggs was the first UAB student hired into BioHorizons' co-op program, she soon had company. Three other Blazers followed her into the program (Josh Moore, Karly Casey and Gordon), and all four stayed on to work full-time. That kind of retention is notable for an undergraduate experience that by its nature is often exploratory. 

“Since we started the co-op program about 10 years ago, we have had about 17-18 engineering students in our program—two of which have been in our regulatory department and the rest in research and development,” said Tom Lewis, BioHorizons manager of product engineering. “We feel that it has been very successful, and to date we have hired five as full-time employees.”

That transition from co-op to full-time employee makes sense when you consider the investment BioHorizons makes in students over a three-semester co-op. Each student must learn Quality System processes before getting down to work with tasks, such as design control, drawing release, and CAD modeling. “Each student is trained, but it takes hands-on involvement to learn all of these processes,” Lewis said. “It’s also helpful for students to experience how different departments work together for a common goal.”

In addition, students must learn industry standards and technologies in the medical device industry. “This takes longer,” Lewis said, “but over time they begin to understand the ‘whys’ behind the design of dental implants, restorative components and instruments. Although we have the expectation that co-ops produce for us, my hope is that when they look back they realize the value of their experience here, and as they move into their careers they have a head start in their understanding of engineering organizations."

“Co-op is both an investment by the company and a commitment by the student,” added Adams. “The depth of experience pays dividends in that co-op students are ready to contribute immediately at an organization after graduation.”


“I have been part of teams in which we have drawn and developed state of the art dental surgery kits that are slated to hit the market this year; I have managed drafting and conducting test plans to research the durability of implant designs; and, most importantly, I have been able to teach incoming co-ops the ins and outs of the company and guide them as they grow from a college student into true engineers.”
—Benjamin Pody, mechanical engineering student and 2nd-year co-op


Homegrown Talent

Lewis says the co-op program historically has drawn from several area universities, but he admits UAB students have one obvious advantage. “Since they are local, they already have living arrangements,” he said. “After completing the three co-op terms, students return to school to finish up and graduate.  With UAB being in town, when the opportunity was available several UAB students have stayed on and worked part-time until graduation.  The company knowledge they have has allowed them to be productive even on a part-time basis.”

While the growth of BioHorizons’ co-op program is exciting for current and future engineering students, UAB School of Engineering Dean Jeff Holmes, M.D., Ph.D., says that is just one of the reasons UAB engineers should look at the BioHorizons story with pride.

“It’s not unusual for a promising startup to spin off from university research—in this case, arising from research in the UAB Schools of Engineering and Dentistry,” said Holmes. “We often comment that these startups have the potential to revolutionize an industry. But in the case of BioHorizons, it has actually done that, and it continues to innovate and to grow. I am tremendously excited that our students are able to be a part of that continuing UAB success story.”

“At BioHorizons, we look forward to continuing our work with UAB in the future,” agreed Lewis. “We appreciate the relationship we have developed with the university that has served us well over the years.”


BioHorizons Senior Leadership

A glance at the BioHorizons team shows a number of UAB graduates among the senior leadership.

R. Steve Boggan, President and CEO

  •   M.S. in Biomedical Engineering from UAB

J. Todd Strong, Executive VP and COO

  •   M.S. in Biomedical Engineering from UAB

Mike Mills, Executive VP and CFO

  •   B.S. from UAB Collat School of Business

Andrew Baroody, VP of Sales Operations

  •   B.A. in English from UAB

Juan Jaramillo, VP of Global Business Support

  •   UAB Graduate

Fred J. Molz, IV, VP of Research and Development

  •   M.S. and Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from UAB

Elbert Jenkins II, VP of Information Technology

  •   MEng in Information Engineering Management from UAB
  •   MBA from the UAB Collat School of Business

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