Paleontology Conference - SAFA 2016

IMG_5304 Hello!

This post is a small departure from my regular prosthetic-centric posts, but ties in to work I completed for the Biomedical Visualization program.  Earlier this month I had the opportunity to present my graduate research to a group of paleontologists at the 2016 Society of Africanist Archaeologists (SAfA) meeting in Toulouse, France.  Dr. Paul Sereno, from the University of Chicago, lead a session at the meeting that was exclusively related to all things Gobero - a massive grave site in Niger where he and his team discovered a burial complex with over 200 plots.  I had the opportunity to digitally excavate of one of these burial plots and create interactive 3D models and animations for three human skeletons recovered from a single grave (dubbed the "Triple Burial"). You can read a more detailed summary of the project in a previous post, Digital Paleontology.



The conference was divided up into different sessions that took place over several days, each session concerned with a specific topic, such as geoarchaeology, pottery, fossils, and so forth.  Most sessions had a common theme with examples from several different regions, excavation sites, etc.  The Gobero session was unique in the fact that every single presentation was specific to the region, dealing with the fossils, artifacts, climate, and geology of the Gobero region; a monument to the sheer volume of information and data recovered from the singular site.  Over the course of the day, 15 presentations were given by experts in the field and graduate students who also worked on the Gobero site, many of whom were part of the excavation teams that went to Niger.  Here is a National Geographic special following Dr. Sereno on a dig in Gobero.

Dr. Sereno gave several presentations on the history of the site, covering information about the two separate groups tho occupied the area (Kiffian and Tenerean populations).  The amount of detail and analysis done for the site was incredible, with presentations on the soils and sediments of the region, how the climate changed, and how the paleolake levels changed over time.  Other presentations included ceramics, fabric, and ornamentation recovered from the site, as well as extremely well preserved fishing points.  Another presentation was centered around the very effective means of excavation and transportation that Dr. Sereno's team utilized in order to pull entire specimens out of the ground in their original orientation.  This allowed the specimens and artifacts recovered from the site to be documented extensively as they were cleaned in a lab environment, rather than having to excavate the specimens on-site.

Tyler Keillor, a paleoartist who works with Dr. Sereno at UofC, and also a member of my graduate research committee, was responsible for creating a highly detailed and realistic replica plaque of the Triple Burial specimens.  The result is quite impressive as a physical display, and works hand-in-hand with the work I completed digitally.  Since Tyler was unable to attend, I presented the work he completed for the plaque side-by-side with my work to show the various ways in which the burial was preserved and replicated.  Here is a video of Tyler making the plaque, and here are some photos of the plaque and the digital renders:

Plaque - front

Plaque - back




As someone without a background in paleontology or archaeology, it was an incredible and humbling experience to be invited to share my contribution to the project in front of such a knowledgable group of specialists.  I felt as though I had somehow manipulated the system, being invited into a secret society that many people don't get to see.  Honestly, as someone with an art degree and an affinity for Indiana Jones films, this was one of the LEAST likely situations I ever expected to find myself in - and it was amazing!  Dr. Sereno is planning on putting together another paper and exhibit on the Gobero site, which will use the Triple Burial specimens as a focal point, so hopefully I'll get the opportunity to contribute more 3D models and animations to the project in the future!


The group of people I met in Toulouse were really great.  After living in Belgium for the past eight months, it was funny to meet with a group of people from Chicago, in another country, and all talk about the various aspects of this huge project that we all had in common.  This was a reunion of sorts for many of the people who worked with Gobero, since the most recent excavation of the site was several years ago and many of those involved had moved away from Chicago to work on new projects.  These types of professional meetings are cool for many reasons, but one reason in particular is the cameraderie.  Everyone has ties to a single subject, and these meetings allow everyone to come together to share what they know and reminisce.

Toulouse itself was a really beautiful city.  This was my first trip to the south of France, but it will definitely not be my last.  Aside from the huuuuuuuuuumidity, the weather was nice and hot.  There were open-air markets in the city squares, and tons of people were out taking advantage of the summer weather.  I was only there for a short period of time, so I didn't get to do a lot of exploration outside of the city center, but Carcassonne is only a short trip from Toulouse, which is reason enough to return. Anywho, here are a few pictures from the trip:


Silicone Valley

Sculpting has always been something that I enjoy doing, and I have made things in many a material over the years.  As an undergrad I spent much of my time learning the ins and outs of  woodworking, metal fabrication, welding, mold-making, lost wax casting, and many other sculpture-related skills. I even took the requisite "trash 101" (or its equivalent - every art school has one), where you reclaim junk materials and create something out of nothing. Graduate school was an opportunity to see the other side of the coin and learn digital sculpting techniques.  It was a lot of fun to learn new programs (ZBrush, 3Ds Max...) and see what was possible to do with them.  I had zero background in any sort of digital art before going into Biomedical Visualization, aside from the occasional foray into Photoshop to add watermarks to scans of my work.  But having a firm grasp on traditional sculpting really helped me pick up the digital workflow and hit the ground running.  3D modeling, along with photogrammetry and 3D printing, really blew the door wide open and made the whole experience come full circle.  Being able to go back and forth between digital and physical objects was really exciting, and taking those skills into prosthetics was,a no-brainer. Of all the materials I had worked with up to the point of graduate school, the one material that I had absolutely no prior experience working with - and possibly the most important - was silicone.  Luckily for me, about 90% of the work for facial prosthetics requires almost the exact same skill set as lost wax / bronze casting: sculpting in wax, texturing, making molds, and so forth.  So learning how to work with silicone and finding out what makes it tick was my main focus with anaplastology.  The silicone we use is a liquid 2-part base-catalyst mixture that you add pigment to and paint into a mold (ear, nose, orbital, etc.).  Everything is sculpted in wax, you make a mold (negative), remove the wax, then paint the silicone into the mold to replicate whatever missing anatomy you are working on.  Example:

However, prosthetic limb covers are made in an *entirely* different way... as I soon discovered.  The process requires all the same components, the same tools, the same materials, but in a completely different order and for different purposes. The silicone that I was finally beginning to feel comfortable with was miles away from the silicone used to make a realistic limb.  For silicone covers, you still use a 2-part compound, but it is extremely hard, no liquid at all, and it has to be mixed together with huge metal rollers, similar to a laundry wringer.  So you mix all of your pigment into your silicone with these giant, potentially finger-crushing rollers, until you have a nice, smooth, air-bubble-free sheet of silicone.  And the process goes thusly:  You take a cast of the prosthesis (which, in this example, is a vaguely leg-shaped prosthesis without toes), take your huge, flimsy, delicate sheet of silicone off the rollers and wrap it around the plaster, seal all the seams, sculpt some toes, paint the entire leg, then wrap ANOTHER layer of silicone over that (avoiding air bubbles the whole time), and finally sculpting in the fine details and texture.

It was a very steep learning curve.

So the past several months have been a crash course in yet another new material and sculpting process, rife with trial and error.  I'm pleased to say that each new prosthesis looks better than the last one, and I come away with a ton of new ideas and techniques to implement in each new project.  Perhaps somewhat naively, I thought that after finishing graduate school, I would be wading through familiar waters as an anaplastologist, but it would appear as though I leapt from the frying pan into the fire.  But I love it.  Any opportunity to learn a new skill is welcome, and I have enjoyed it tremendously.  There is little that gives me as much pleasure as hoarding new skills - the stranger and more specific, the better.

On that note, here are some process photos for a hand I made.  Enjoy!




I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to go to Leipzig, Germany a few weeks ago for the OTWorld 2016 Convention, which is an international showcase for the latest in orthopedic technology, prosthetics, myoelectric/bionic limb tech, etc.  It was a dream come true.  Futuristic mechanical limbs and realistic silicone prosthetic covers as far as the eye could see, all being worn and displayed by amputee models! It was incredible.

The options available for amputees ranges from the purely aesthetic to the highly functional, with offerings from a lot of heavy-hitters in the world of orthopedics.  Touchbionics (Ossur), Bebionic (Steeper Group), Vincent, and Ottobock all had extremely nice, sleek myoelectric / bionic hand options, with models showing their functionality and various grip patterns.  The tech in these hands is improving exponentially, making them smaller and lighter weight, with more functions and faster response time.

I spend the majority of my time as an anaplastologist making realistic silicone covers for prosthetic limbs (also called a "cosmesis - cometic + prosthesis).  I work one-on-one with patients in order to accurately match the shape of their prosthesis to their own anatomy, as well as creating accurate textures and matching colors to their skin tones.  At the convention, there were several companies offering very detailed and well-made prosthetic covers, and this was awesome to see.  I spoke with a lot of technicians who work on these types of prostheses and I learned a lot of really great information and different techniques.  Each group makes their silicone covers in a slightly different way, so having the opportunity to speak with others in the field was an invaluable experience.  My personal favorites came from Dorset Orthopaedic (Ottobock), which is based out of the UK.  Not only are their sculpts very nice anatomically (thin ankles, realistic toes, prominent vasculature), but their colors are spot on.  The variation in color and freckle patterns was really impressive to see up close.


Aside from rubbing elbows with other people in the industry, I went with the company I work for to launch and promote a new prosthetic technology that we have been developing: the CLICK-ON modular arm prosthesis.  Over the past few months I have been working with a small team doing research and development for this new, patient-specific, customizable prosthesis.  With this system, the patient is fitted with a custom silicone liner for their stump and a socket with a carbon tube structure, which allows a prosthetic hand and "click-on" armatures (that mimic the shape of their arm anatomy) to be attached to the structure.  Here is a short demo video showing the various components being attached and swapped out:

The major perks of the CLICK-ON (aside from being a perfect match of the opposite arm, anatomically) are that each component is completely customizable and extremely easy to change out without needing tools.  The hand, the radial click-on, and the ulnar click-on can all be designed to the patient's specifications, and come in a variety of different colors and materials.  The hand is designed after a digitally scanned, mirrored, and printed copy of their opposite hand, then sculpted in silicone to mimic their other hand, either realistically or in a solid color of their choosing.  Each hand is also designed in a standard pinch position so that they are able to have basic functionality with their prosthesis. The click-ons can be a solid 3D printed material, silicone, leather, carbon fiber, etc.  Once the base model has been designed for the patient, they can acquire new components in different styles and colors, allowing them to quickly and easily switch between different combinations to suit the occasion.  Additionally, we are developing accessories that can be added in place of the hand using the same mechanism, such as a utensil holder and an attachment for bicycle handles.


It was a really spectacular experience - an amazing hub of innovation and spectacle!  And it was also very exciting and rewarding to see the CLICK-ON amongst the options available at such a prestigious convention.  Here are a few more pictures from the event (in no particular order):

Now to get back to the Uncanny Valley.  There are differing opinions about what type of prosthesis a patient should get, and obviously a lot of it depends on what the patient hopes to get our of their prosthesis.  The spectrum ranges from less functional and highly realistic (cosmesis), to highly functional and less realistic (myoelectric).  In general, the more functionality that a prosthesis has, the less realistic it has to be, due to the requirements and constraints of the mechanics of the hand.  Realistic silicone covers work on prostheses with minimal functionality because they have fewer moving parts, and there is less wear and tear on the silicone.  In order to make something that will work on a bionic hand and bend and flex correctly, you need to use a softer, less durable silicone, which will be prone to tearing, discoloration, and a whole host of concerns.  Nonetheless, there is still an ongoing converstation about how no one in the field has been able to make a really good, life-like silicone cover for a bionic hand.

But why would you want to?

At first, I thought to myself that the marriage of the two ends of the spectrum would be the ideal outcome - a hand with high functionality and a realistic silicone cover.  At face value, it makes perfect sense to try to regain functionality, but to disguise it, so as not to draw attention to the fact that the anatomy is missing.  But in this ever-progressing era in which we live (take that with a grain of salt), with  tattoos, piercings and body modifications, combined with the broad diversity of fashion choices that we encounter on a daily basis, having something different isn't necessarily a negative thing.  Having or wearing something different or unique has become increasingly common, while becoming less taboo.

So instead of trying to look like the T-1000, why not try to look like Iron Man?  Instead of covering your prosthetic arm to make it look more realistic, why not show it off?  Every person I have met who has a myoelectric hand has been very satisfied with the look, perhaps even wanting to take it one step further to make it look even more out of the ordinary.  Wear a copper-plated steampunk arm with moving gears and a rocket fist.  WE CAN BUILD IT.  The only limitation is your imagination. It can act as a symbol, a way for an amputee to take back what they have lost, to own it and to flaunt it.  I mean, c''s pretty cool, right?  A robotic hand? If nothing else, it's a sign of progress that shows what we are capable of as a technologically innovative society.  Necessity is the mother of invention, and as long as there are problems to solve, there will be someone out there to find an inventive solution.

Lastly, I have been compiling a list of medical art, illustration, and prosthetics -related websites, blogs, people, companies, and organizations that may be of interest to those who want to find out more about the field.  I created a Medical Art Resources page HERE  on this blog, and I will continue to add more resources as come across them.



Uncanny Valley

As an amputee looking for an arm prosthesis, you are limited to several options: You've got the standard silicone cover (stiff, lifeless silicone in a single color with minimal detail), the lifelike/realistic silicone cover (painted and sculpted to more accurately match your own anatomy), a few simple mechanical options (ie. the hook, or basic hands with simple grip), and the much more functional (and expensive) myoelectric/bionic options.  The last option is ideal for a person who wants to regain some functionality with their prosthesis, as they allow the wearer to to switch between several different grip patterns and hand positions for grabbing, pointing, pinching, and so forth.  Myolectric hands use sensors placed on muscles higher up in their arm to control the hand, allowing them to regain some (limited) manual dexterity from their new hand. The technology they are developing for bionic hands is reeeeeeeally cool and it has come a long way in the last few years.  We are starting to see the stuff of science fiction films become reality - Terminator and Iron Man and the like.  It's pretty gnarly. And as 3D printing and other tech continues to grow and become more streamlined, accessible, and affordable, the possibilities for prosthetics will continue to grow exponentially.  One of the biggest limiting factors in implementing myoelectric technology in prosthetics is the size and weight of the materials and mechanisms.  Companies like Bebionic, TouchBionics, and Ottobock are whittling down the weight and size to make myoelectric arms more user-friendly, and a MUCH more realistic option.


There is a certain amount of taboo associated with the loss of a limb or having some type of facial difference, which requires a prosthesis as either an aesthetic or functional solution.  This is especially true with facial prostheses, as people can immediately tell when something seems off or not-quite-right about a person's face.  This becomes even more glaringly obvious when a person is wearing a prosthesis that is poorly made.  Instead of covering up the area in question, an ill-fitting or poorly color-matched prosthesis draws attention to the fact that the wearer is missing a part of their anatomy.  This is the slippery slope of the Uncanny Valley.

Here's a quote and a nifty graph to explain:

[Masahiro] Mori's original hypothesis states that as the appearance of a robot is made more human, some observers' emotional response to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong revulsion. However, as the robot's appearance continues to become less distinguishable from that of a human being, the emotional response becomes positive once again and approaches human-to-human empathy levels.[9]

This area of repulsive response aroused by a robot with appearance and motion between a "barely human" and "fully human" entity is called the uncanny valley. The name captures the idea that an almost human-looking robot will seem overly "strange" to some human beings, will produce a feeling of uncanniness, and will thus fail to evoke the empathic response required for productive human-robot interaction.


Robots aside, this is a HUGE deal in prosthetics.  Many considerations need to be made when creating a prosthesis for a patient, and the skill of the prosthetist/anaplastologist needs to be exceptional. However, where facial prostheses need to be more realistic in order to avoid the Uncanny Valley, it's less of a concern with arm and leg prostheses.  In a way, we have the science fiction genre to thank for this because we, as a society, have been exposed to the futuristic idea of robotic, biomechanical, cybernetic organism (living tissue over metal endoskeleton) -type limbs for decades.  And because of this, we are primed for an evolution that can and will, ultimately, break the taboos surrounding artificial limbs.

The old-hat thought process that anything different is strange changes dramatically once a group of people takes ownership of these changes and embraces them.  Looking to amputees as an example, wearing an exceptionally strange or aesthetically interesting limb prosthesis changes the dialog surrounding what is "different" and "strange" entirely, and this only increases as prostheses become more functional.

Because of the era in which we live, having something new and interesting and innovative is cool, which gets people talking about it more, thus, changing what is deemed "normal" by social standards.  This is incredibly important because it means that the options for an amputee are only limited by the available technology.  And with the advent of 3D printing, the options for design are truly limitless.  Almost anything you can imagine can be created digitally and made into a physical object.  If you want a steampunk arm prosthesis with moving gears and a solar-powered USB port, you can have it!  And it's a wonderful conversation piece, which perpetuates the cycle of acceptance. And as long as there are individuals who are willing to flaunt the technology, and people eager to develop it, this idea will continue to grow and become more mainstream.

Luckily, there are some really innovative and interesting companies and people who are doing just this.  One group that comes to mind immediately is The Alternative Limb Project, which I have been following closely for the past few  years due to the INSANE quality of work that the founder, Sophie de Oliveira Barata, has been creating.  Her work is aesthetically very interesting, and great for patients who are interested in changing how the loss of a limb is viewed in society by engaging the public. Two projects in particular that AltLimbPro has been involved with have had really interesting results:



These are both great examples of how people are taking ownership of their amputation in order to make something good and positive (and visually bad-ass!) out of it.  Since becoming involved in the prosthetics industry I have also been trying to get more involved with the people who are trying out new and experimental prosthetic technologies. Social media is an amazing tool, and I've had the opportunity to speak with a few people who are heavily invested, including James Young and Angel Giuffria (both of  whom are in the 2nd video). Following and interacting with them on Twitter has been really great because it has introduced me to even more people, groups, fabricators, technicians, and prosthetists who are like-minded, looking for innovative answers to these questions.

...Which leads me to my personal experience on the matter.  Over the last few months I've had the opportunity to work with a small group of people on a development team to create a new, customizable arm prosthesis system.  It's been a really interesting project to work on, mostly because of the sheer number of possibilities that become available to the patient with the system.  We use 3D scanning and printing, combined  with traditional silicone work to create customizable prostheses that are patient-specific.  I recently had  the opportunity to attend the OTWorld 2016 orthopedic convention in Leipzig, Germany, for the debut of the new  prosthesis, as well as to peruse the massive amount of prosthetic tech that was on display.  It  was incredibly impressive and a great way to become more familiar with what is commercially available to patients, as well as new technologies that are being developed.

But this post is getting a bit long, so I'm gonna make it a two-parter.  I'll put together another post very soon detailing the new product launch and OTWorld 2016, as well as childish photos i took of amusing German signs (hyuk hyuk hyuk).

Until next time!


Limb Fabricator





Feverish schooling and a trans-Atlantic voyage has led me here, to this place. BELGIUM. I am currently living a surreal existance in a far off land, in a bizarre dreamscape of what only the half-mad could dream to call a "career".

I make limbs.

Yes, after decades of being fascinated by horror movie props, severed objects that polite society has referred to as "gory" and "gross", I have found myself on the other side of the fence, making life-like prosthetic apparatus which dance the fine edge of the Uncanny Valley... Oh, frabjous day!

My typical day goes as follows:  Wake up.  Coffee.  MAKE SOME AWESOME GODDAMN BODY PARTS. Coffee.  Play with dogs and the miss in the the Belgian countryside.  Repeat. Life is good.

The V!GO Group (not to be confused with Vigo, the Scourge of Carpathia, the Sorrow of Moldavia), is primarily an orthopedic company, which makes braces, mobility devices, prosthetics, and so forth.  I work for a smaller branch of the company which specifically makes facial prostheses and aesthetic silicone covers for prosthetic limbs.  They make the guts, we make 'em purdy.  When I was hired, I was basically put in charge of all things legs and feet, something I had never done before.  While in the BVIS program in Chicago, I primarily worked on eyes, noses, and ears, which I felt very comfortable with.  Arm and leg covers are a whole different ball of wax (no pun intended).  Making silicone covers for limbs is completely different from what I had learned, and proved to be a rather daunting, intimidating task.


Now that I've been at the new job for several months, things have definitely gotten easier and I feel like I'm finally starting to find my niche.  I have learned a TON of new information regarding prostheses and orthotics, more than I could have ever hoped to learn with facial prosthetics alone.  The world of orthopedics is massive, and there are a lot of really interesting things going on in it.  New bionic and myoelectric technologies, engineering, 3D scanning and printing - it's insane.  Luckily, I fell in with a group that was willing to test my mettle with something that was not really in my wheelhouse.

Making silicone covers for a prosthetic limb, as with facial prostheses, is basically artistic sculpting, but in a completely new and different way from what I was used to.  I've sculpted in wood, plaster, and wax, and I've welded metal armatures and whatnot, I've carved and laminated, and I've made molds and castings.  But this was a process unlike anything I had ever done before.  Dealing with massive sheets of silicone, covering cast models of legs, sculpting toes and veins and arteries - that's difficult enough.  But this requires extremely realistic painting ON TOP of that, followed by more silicone and meticulous patterning and fine detail work in order to make (what will eventually just be vulcanized rubber) look like human flesh.  All the pores, wrinkles, creases, pimples, moles, blemishes, ruptured vessels, scars, scabs, excema... And each one of these skin types and conditions requires some ingenious texturing tool to be created out of strange and mundane household items.  I've MacGyver'd more toothbrushes and bits of string into glorious texturing tools than I could ever hope to list.

I really love the work.  Getting the opportunity to spend the majority of my day sculpting is phenomenal, and the bonus of learning completely new information, new materials, and new techniques is like getting an additional education.  And above all else, I'm gettin to do something that legitimately impacts people who have suffered through a physically and psychologically traumatic event, which is an incredibly rewarding experience.

And, ya know, I get to wear a lab coat with my name on it.

Digital Paleontology

Dig, Lazarus, dig! For the past year I have had the incredible opportunity to work with Paleontologist Dr. Paul Sereno and paleoartist Tyler Keillor at the University of Chicago for my research project.  I have been tasked with taking CT scan data of a very old grave and creating 3D models of the human remains in the plot.  Using equal parts sorcery and technology, I have work diligently on this project day in an day out over the past year, and it is now nearing completion!  Here are some of the finer details, in a nutshell:


The grave I have been digitally excavating was found in Niger, West Africa and is part of the much larger Gobero burial complex, which contains approximately 200 separate graves.  The specimens in the graves occupied the area roughly 10,000 years ago when the Sahara was a (comparatively) lush and wet landscape.  There were two distinct groups of people who lived in the area with a 1000 year gap between them, due to climatic change making the area arid and uninhabitable.  The burial plot I have been working with comes from the later population and contains three bodies (dubbed the "Triple Burial"): an adult female and two children.  The bodies were buried facing one another and holding hands, along with an assortment of artifacts (points, scrapers).

Delicious slices of CT data


The specimens were physically separated into smaller parts and sent through a CT scanner, each resulting set of CT data containing upwards of 3000 images.  I took that data and imported it into a software program that compiles the images and interprets them as three-dimensional volumes.  The specimens are extremely fragile and were only partially excavated on-site in order to preserve the structural integrity of the bones. Once the CT data was scanned and compiled, what I was left with was a big hunk of rock and dirt with bones sticking out in every direction.  Thus began the arduous process of digitally removing all the extraneous (non-bone) material, layer by layer. This was a grueling process and required countless hours in front of a computer, manually masking areas and removing data.

Picking the bones clean

After all the models were *just right* I took them into a ZBrush to smooth out the rough areas, then imported them into 3Ds Max to put the skeletons back together, piece by piece.  I converted each skeleton into an interactive model that can be viewed on a computer or touchscreen device - the latter being an incredibly awesome bonus feature. I was also able to take all of the edited CT data from each specimen and create a user-controlled animation that lets the viewer scroll through each individual slice of CT data to see the bones (without the rock!).

Cross-section of data

Whoa.  Breaking that whole process down into 2 paragraphs reeeeeeeeeally doesn't capture the true essence of the project.  The struggle.  The drama.  The revelation and discovery. The bleary eyes, callused fingers, and crooked spine... The unabridged final paper breaks down the process in 84 extremely detailed pages - "Non-Invasive Digital Excavation and Three-Dimensional Reconstruction of Human Paleontological Remains."

If you'd like to learn more about the Gobero site and the excavation, you can read an article HERE.  Also, Tyler Keillor was recently featured in a Wall Street Journal article: Did Dinosaurs Have Lips? Dinosaur and Paleontology enthusiasts should definitely read both!

In addition to feverishly finishing up the various aspects of my research project, I recently had the opportunity to present my research to a group of students and professionals in the field of Medical Illustration at Georgia Regents University, in Augusta, Georgia.  The O.A. Parkes Symposium and Student Conference was an amazing event.  Getting to meet with other students in the field and hear about their research was very exciting, and the presentations were incredible! Getting to hobnob with Medical Illustration VIPs ain't a bad way to spend a weekend.

I think I'm gonna like this line of work.

National Museum Intern of Mystery

  LSD - AP

The end is nigh.  My final semester of graduate school is upon me.  The past two years have culminated in this moment; the closely approaching convocation.  I will be draped in silken ceremonial garb and my head will be adorned with the mortarest of boards.  I will make my final stride with my hand outstretched, grasping for my hard-won prize...the scroll!  And then I will be cast ceremoniously into the world to make cool anatomical doodads and whatnots.

Life is good.

This semester I was fortunate enough to be chosen for an internship at the National Museum of Health + Medicine Chicago.  As part of my course work for my final semester I get to work on making awesome 3D models and assets for museum exhibits!  The primary project I'm working on right now is for an upcoming exhibit about Traumatic Brain Injury.  Two other graduate students from the Biomedical Visualization program are working on the exhibit as their final research project, as well as two recent BVIS grads who are affiliated with the museum, and a handful of interns from another program.  The final exhibit will have animations, interactive modules, 3D models of brain and head anatomy, and more.  I'll be working on a short animation that will show the way in which the brain moves within the skull during trauma, leading to TBI.

Thorax Cryosection - The Visible Human Project male dataset (courtesy of


I've been working with the Visible Human Project male dataset, which was an effort made by the National Library of Science in 1986 (more info HERE).  Essentially, a human male cadaver was frozen and sliced into 1mm cryosections and each slice was photographed in high detail.  This type of data can then be imported into a segmentation program and compiled into a 3D model.  This particular data set has since been segmented into skeletal, organ, and soft tissue models in isolation, each of which can be interacted with as it's own model (a kidney or the skull, for example).  I'm working in Materialise (R) Mimics to segment out the skull, cervical vertebrae, and brain in order to create an animation.  This is a nice extension of my research project, in which I've been using the same program (Mimics) to segment skeletal data from a burial site.

In addition to the internship, I am getting ready to begin the final stages of my research project (as mentioned above) and will try to make several exhaustive posts detailing the process.  I met with my committee this past week and finalized the plan for my research - now it's just a matter of organizing the pieces and putting it all together.  I've already finished the heavy lifting, which consisted of manually segmenting the skeletal data of three 10,000 year old human subjects.  The prospects look good and I'm excited to get the last stage of this year-and-a-half long project under way.

Stay tuned for more detail than you could ever want to know about digitally excavating the dead!


Greetings. When last I left you, I was tumbling head over heels through the broad and deep valley of 3Ds Max modeling, attempting to piece together a somewhat appealing composition for a still life.  Finally, after many long weeks in the sand-choked wastes of rendering, my throat sandpapery and eyes glazed over from hours of staring slack-jawed into computer monitors... I have scaled the crumbling walls of the aforementioned wasteland and have emerged on the other side!!  This has been my most in-depth and ambitious assignment so far in the BVIS program, and the time and effort have paid off.  I'm extremely pleased with the outcome! Come with me, on a journey through the various phases of this laborious project...

In my last post I was still putting together all of the various elements and objects that would be in the final scene of the still life, each of which pertaining to the memento mori theme: a skull, a pocketwatch, candles, etc.  Throughout the process, I took lots of in-progress screencaps and a few short weeks ago, this single shot blew my mind and I said to myself "YES.  It's really happening for me.  THIS is the future. I'm almost done!"  I was so wrong...


I also discussed the process of using photogrammetry to create a realistic skull model.  After implementing a little bit of computer-based magic, I was able to get a pretty good model in a *very* reasonable amount of time - the majority of which took place in ZBrush, where I optimized the model, textured it, and added paint:

Completed skull model in ZBrush


All of the other objects in the scene were created in 3Ds Max, with lots of lighting, material, and bitmap manipulation.  This is where the !real! !fun! (sarcasm) began - RENDERING FOR HOURS.  The first set of render passes was the whole scene together, with a beauty shot, lighting, shadow, zdepth, ambient occlusion, diffuse, specular, etc. etc.  After that was done, I rendered each individual object by itself, with the same previously listed passes for each.  finally, I rendered out each individual light in the scene to maximize my ability to tweak the settings in the scene.  Here's the final break down:

PHASE THE FIRST:  The Beauty Shot

This is the beauty pass from the final scene.  This is a single pass without any manipulation:


PHASE THE SECOND: Beauty Composite

This is the result of taking the previous beauty pass and compositing it using the lighting, shadow, ambient occlusion, diffuse, specular passes, etc.:

~10 passes

PHASE THE THIRD: Final Master Composite

This is where the majority of the fine details were adjusted.  Before getting into the final shot of the scene, here is a single object in the scene that was composited using roughly 10 different render passes, before and after for comparison:

Original --> Composite


This step was taken for each individual item, every light, and every shadow, before adding Z depth (for distance blur) and the candle flames to the scene.  So, without further ado, here is the final shot:



The result is leaps and bounds better than what I was hoping to achieve.  In previous attempts at rendering and compositing, I had only made adjustments to the beauty composition as a whole.  Rendering out individual elements and being able to adjust them ever so slightly - that's where the real CG sorcery happens.  This whole project was an exercise in learning how to create realistic materials and lighting, and I feel like I've improved quite a bit since my last few attempts.

I will never underestimate a lace tablecloth again.


still_life2 Hello, and Welcome!  To yet another glorious installment of Things That Occupy My Time - the Blog.

This semester I'm taking a catch-all independent study that explores three-dimensional modeling technologies and different ways of manipulate them.  My first experiment was to attempt to use photogrammetry, which allows you to take a series of pictures of an object from multiple angles, then convert those photos into a 3D object.  I had a little practice doing this over the summer, using the 3DMD system in our Anaplastology clinic, which we use to capture patient data for reference when sculpting prostheses.  3DMD, however, is an expensive setup which I have limited access to, so I sought out out a different method...

...Enter 123D Catch - a free iPhone/iPad app which is, essentially, photogrammetry for the average Joe.  Autodesk, the company that is responsible for Catch, 3Ds Max, and Mudbox, has created a suite of apps to be used for 3D printing.  I wanted to see just how accurate the program was, so I decided to go into our student lounge and take 30+ pictures of our ever-grinning plastic skeleton model.  The result was pretty impressive:

123D Catch skull tests

*I'd like to point out that I am aware of the fact that pictured above is a screenshot (2D) of an interactive model (3D) that was made using a series of photos (2D) of an actual object (3d)...*

Using the free app, I was able to log in to the Autodesk website, convert the 3D model into a file type that I could import into 3Ds Max, and voila - a completely manipulable three-dimensional skull in a matter of minutes.  The model wasn't perfect, but once I was able to get it into 3Ds Max, it was a simple matter of choosing the best half of the skull and mirroring it.  After importing it into ZBrush, smoothing out some of the rough spots, and remeshing it, the skull was pretty much ready to go.  I still need to go in and add some more texture and color, but that comes later.

ZBrush modifications


The skull was just a test to see what was possible using 123D Catch, and I decided to incorporate it into a larger project where I could mess around with different textures, materials, and lighting.  I've always been interested in memento mori, vanitas, and all those classical depictions of life and death conversing with one another.  "Quello che voi siete noi eravamo; Quello che noi siamo voi sarete..."  What you are, we once were; What we are now, you will become - a message from the dead.....Boooooooooooooooooooooo!!!  So I decided to try my hand at a CG still life which includes all the staples of a good convo between the living and the dead: a timepiece, a flickering candle, some old books, a skull, et cetera. Oh, the impermanence of life!!  Now comes the fun part of making the leather look like leather, the wax like wax, and the lace like lace.  And I'll try to add a dash of dystopian abandonment for good measure!  I'll post the final result as soon as it's done.  In the meantime, here's a li'l bit of the work in progress:





The Anatomy of Horror: A Love Story

  Well, in the blink of an eye, my second semester as a graduate student has come to a close!  All things considered, I would say it was a resounding success.  I was able to pace myself a bit better this second time around and keep procrastination to a minimum.  To summarize the semester, here is what I presented in front of the BVIS Department (duplicated as faithfully as possible), which briefly summarizes some of the childhood interests that led me to become a student in Biomedical Visualization.  So, without further ado, I present to you...

The Anatomy of Horror: A Love Story. 

When I was growing up I had a lot of lofty ideas of possible career paths that I would choose as an adult, from a cowboy to an astronaut firefighter – and to be clear, that is an astronaut who fights fires in space, not two separate professions.  I have always been a huge fan of movies, and still am to this day.  And like many children growing up watching movies, a lot of what I found interesting came out of the movies that I watched.  My interest started with action movies, but quickly spread to science fiction and horror.  Lucky for me, I have great parents who thought that it was appropriate for an impressionable youth, such as myself, to have movie role models such as these:


Role Models


So, thank you mom and dad.

Now what I’m about to say may seem like a stretch, but watching horror movies eventually led to a profound appreciation of science and anatomy.  How is this possible, you might ask?  Well, I challenge anyone to watch any 5 zombie movies without coming away with a cursory knowledge of skeletal anatomy - It’s unavoidable.  As a child, any time I saw a zombie rip someone apart, I would pause the movie, grab an anatomy atlas, and advance through the scene shot by shot, fact-checking to see if they got the anatomy right.


A clear theme emerges


These types of movies were the “stepping stones” that ultimately evolved into a more scholarly and sophisticated interest in science and anatomy.  Other early nudges in this direction came from my high school anatomy class, where I got to see a polycystic kidney – one of the most disgusting and fascinating things I’ve ever seen – and later that same year when I saw the Body Worlds exhibit at LACMA.

But how, you might ask, does one shed a juvenile interest in slasher films in order to create prosthetic devices and informative visualizations used for patient education?  The answer is simple: You don’t!  And I hope that my work will prove just how important horror films have been in getting me to where I am today, and how they have informed many aspects of the work I have created during my time in the Biomedical Visualization Program.

My first semester in the BVIS program consisted almost entirely of two-dimensional forms of visualization.  This semester, however, has focused on three-dimensional art forms exclusively.  I took the 3D Trinity: Computer Visualization, Haptics and Augmented Reality, and Anaplastology.  Each course offered a new realm of possibilities for what could be created in 3D, and  resulted in learning very different and unique sets of skills.  Here are the last few projects I have finished since my last post.

For my final Computer Visualization project, I got to make a Polycystic Liver!


cysts cysts cysts


This was a fun one.  We used chryosection data from the Visible Human Male project (from the National Museum of Health and Medicine Chicago) and compiled the data into Mimics, a program that converts CT data and, in this case, consecutive JPEG "slices", and renders them into a 3D object.  We then imported that data into 3Ds Max and retopologized the model to smooth it out and make it more managable to work with.  The retopped model was then imported into MudBox where it was painted and sculpted. It was imported into Max AGAIN and lighting was added to bring out all the juicy, shiny cysts.  And, finally, the rendered Max files were composited in Photoshop to make the cysts, for lack of a better word, "pop."

For Haptics and Augmented Reality, I put together a small video compilation of some of the projects we completed.


For the first project, we had to recreate the solar system as an exercise to learn C++ and code hierarchy.  For the second project, we learned how to create haptic mesh objects and how to apply haptic effects to each one (slippery surface, sticky surface...).  For the third project, we had to create Jenga programmatically and be able to interact with it using the haptic device.  There are also 3 interactive buttons in the scene: reset, destroy, and easy.  The last project was still in progress when I put the video together, but we made a carnival shooting range game.  The haptic cursor is a gun and when you press the button a cork attached to a chain pops out and knocks over the glass bottles.  When I presented this last project in class, I was able to retrofit a plastic cap gun to fit over the haptic device, using a bit of string, a paperclip, and a li'l ingenuity (MacGyver style).  That way, when you pull the trigger of the plastic gun, it presses the button on the haptic device.  It actually made it a lot easier to aim, and it made it feel more realistic.

Last but not least, I finished my ocular for Anaplastology:


It knows your secrets


Once again, just like the auricular prosthesis I completed earlier in the semester, I got to get my hands dirty and use actual, tangible materials and tools ("instruments" if you're in a clinic)!  We started out by painting the lens and fitting it with a clear corneal button, then got it all lined up using a wax sclera "blank." Then we made a two part mold, cast the sclera in white acrylic, ground it down,  and added color and vasculature (strands of thread). Finally, a layer of clear acrylic was added, polished, and buffed to create the end result.

And there you have it.  A quick tour of the Spring semester.  Now to sit back, relax, and put in as many hours into video games as humanly possible before the summer semester starts... Stay tuned!

My, What Shiny Organs You Have


Well folks, I finally have enough time and photos for a fairly extensive post!  So without further ado, here’s what’s been going on:

I'm in the thick of learning the essentials of 3Ds  MAX, which is building at an alarming rate!  Shading, lighting, and modeling are all finally coalescing,  leading into our first big project.  For class this past week we had to storyboard a series of steps in a scientific process and pick a single still to illustrate and render in MAX. Being the zombie-lover that I am, I chose to work on a scene of Cordyceps Militaris attacking the guts of an insect.  Cordyceps is a nasty parasitic fungus that attacks ants, spiders, and other insects, takes over their minds, and mummifies them from the inside out.   In the video game The Last of Us (hands down one of the *best* games I’ve ever played) a ficticious Cordyceps variant evolves spreads to humans and brings on the apocalypse.   This is some truly terrifying stuff, ficticious version or real, and is going to be a lot of fun to work  with.  All those moldy textures and glistening organs...Anywho, I’ll be working on this project over the next few weeks and will post the result on here once it’s finalized.


Super Slick Stomach


In Anaplastology, we’ve been working in the lab, learning about the machinery, tools, materials, and techniques necessary to create an auricular prosthesis.  Working from a model, the goal is to duplicate the opposite (missing) ear on a plaster cast of an existing ear defect.  We started by mixing clay, wax, and Crayons to get the right consistency and a “fleshy” color.  The wax is then sculpted into the basic shape of an ear, carved, smoothed, and refined so that it matches its partner.  After getting the basic shape right, the wax model has to be tweaked and repositioned until the elevation of the ear is right from all angles, sized appropriately, and includes all of the anatomical features in the correct proportions.  Holding the two sides up to one another, the slightest difference becomes glaringly obvious, and drawing attention to a prosthesis defeats the purpose.  As of right now, the basic wax ear is complete and we will be adding texture next week, casting it in silicone, attaching mounting hardware, and finally coloring it.


Ear ma  gerd


I’ve always enjoyed working with wax and it feels good to work with something that I have a fair amount of experience with.  The BVIS program has consisted a lot of fumbling around in the dark up to this point, as far as learning unfamiliar skills.  Photoshop and MAX has definitely been a challenge, but more fun than I could have ever imagined.  The Anaplastology coursework is really great because, in spite of all the CNC machines and fancy gizmos, it is still very much grounded in traditional sculpting techniques.  The ear project has been an awesome exercise and soon we’ll get to start working on a glass eye.  Righteous!

Up to this point I have only been throwing around vague information about the Haptics and Augmented Reality class, which has mostly been due to not knowing quite how to explain it.  But Lo, and behold!  I took some video of the haptic device we are using IN ACTION, which will hopefully shed some light on what you can do with it. To set up the scene, our current project requires us to build four 3D models in C++, add them into a blank scene, and apply different parameters to each object so that they "feel" different from one another.  The user can then interact with the virtual objects with the haptic device and feel the differences between them.   Here are two videos:


If you watch both the screen and the haptic device, you can see how they interact with one another.  The parameters of the sphere are set so that it feels dense and has a slippery surface.  The haptic pointer slides off of the sphere with almost no resistance and follows the rounded contour of the object.  The cube has a bouncier surface and is somewhat squishy (more of a deflated kickball consistency).  As the device moves across the surface, it falls off the edges sharply.  By adjusting the attributes assigned to each object, you end up with a variety of different touch senses, which make an object feel sticky, slippery, soft, hard, etc.  These attributes can also be combined with one another to create even more complex surfaces.

If you feel a tickle in your ear, that’s just your liquefied brain oozing out.  Cuz your mind just got blown.  This technology is insane!!

Finally, my research project is gaining momentum.  I just chose my committee members and started fleshing out the final ideas for my topic.  For the project I will be working with a paleontologist to reconstruct the skeletal remains of several individuals who lived in sub-Saharan Africa approximately 7000 years ago.  Using CT scan data, I’ll be “virtually digging” the skeletal remains out of the ground, and using 3Ds MAX to reconstruct the missing pieces, put  them back together, and stand them up.  As far as projects go, I think I picked a winner!  This semester and over the summer I will be fine-tuning my modeling skills in preparation for the project.  After compiling all my data and presenting it to my committee in  the summer, the 3D modeling begins.  Huzzah!

To be continued.

Back From the Dead

red_skull With the month-long process of restoring the posterior groove in my couch to its proper depth now a fading memory, it is clear that winter break is over and that I must return to the glory of higher education.  During my bout of freedom I was able to complete ONE drawing, read ONE book, and, most importantly, played through and beat ONE video game - Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag.  All in all, my first hibernation in the desolate tundra that is winter in Chicago was a success, and by that I mean that I was able to avoid frostbite (narrowly).

Coming from the southwestern part of the United States, where you get 320 days of sunshine annually, it rains when the sun is out, and an eighth of an inch of snow is enough to result in the cancellation of school at every level, the depletion of the state's entire natural gas supply, and cause an automobile accident at every major and minor street intersection simultaneously...Chicago was quite a different experience.  For me "weather" has always been more of a loosely understood concept, something that happens to Bill Paxton or Tom Hanks on a large format projector in a dark room.  It wasn't until I mistakenly decided to trek into the city to visit a museum during a severe weather alert that I fully understood what living in the midwest during the winter meant.  Wandering blindly toward Lake Michigan in knee-high snow and -12 degree weather in warm-by-desert-standards boots at 4:30pm - the time at which even the sun calls it quits - is NOT something that I would recommend to most people.  That being said, I now own my first ever pair of snow boots and carry Life Alert around my neck whenever I venture out further than the front steps of my apartment.  But I digress.  Chicago is a wonderful city and all the contraptions that come to life and wander out into the street to take care of all of the wintery obstacles are pretty amazing.  Everything in this city is like a Christmas movie - big trees, ice skating rinks, frozen rats - all incredible.  And one final note: during my obligatory holiday Netflix binge, I discovered that every single Christmas movie that I loved and cherished as a dusty, sun-beaten desert child actually took place in Chicago.  Every movie I put on was peppered with Chicago flags, Blackhawks jerseys, Bears caps, and that time-honored trope of the grizzled old man who diligently shovels snow, all the while keeping his rheumy eyes locked on the nearby reckless youths who insist on causing mischief too close to his lawn - a classic.  Basically, every pitfall encountered by the robbers in Home Alone happened to me at some point during the break, and I loved it.

Turning my attention back to school, the semester has just started and is already yielding very exciting prospects.  My foray into the realm of 3D digital media is fully underway and I'm excited to learn the fundamentals of  3Ds MAX and MudBox.  This week we had to make a spaceship.  It was glorious.  In addition to digital art, this semester marks the official start of the Anaplastology program.  I'll finally be able to get my hands dirty in the lab and work with wax and plaster.  We're starting  off with a few drawings of ears, noses, and eyes, then moving into waxwork and moldmaking.  In the weeks ahead, I will get to make an ear out of silicon and color it, make an ocular (which I am EXTREMELY excited about), and, hopefully learn a bit about 3D printing.  This semester I'll also get to take a more in-depth look at the anatomy of the head and neck with Craniofacial Anatomy, and I'll be taking my *first* business class on how NOT to get screwed over as an artist.  There are surprisingly few courses with that aim geared to undergraduates in the arts, which is pretty appalling.  And last but not least is the elusive Haptics and Augmented Reality course, which I'm still not 100% sure of what it will require of me.  In our first lecture there were a lot of physics terms thrown around and we were warned that if we don't calibrate the machines correctly, we could have a Skynet type of situation on our hands, so...more on that as it  develops.

Until next time - I'll be keeping the robots at bay.

Formaldehyde Wishes and Skeleton Dreams

And just like that, the first semester of the Biomedical Visualization program has drawn to a close.  What else can be said that hasn't already been perfectly captured in every 80's era/John Hughes/coming-of-age/summer vacation film?  What a white-knuckled thrill ride it has been!  All  I need to do now  is wrap this bad boy up by winning a downhill  skiing competition on one leg.

We finished it all up with a day of presentations, where all of the current BVIS students had the opportunity to share what they have been working this semester.  Even though all of the first year students had the same assignments, it was awesome to see how each student interpreted them and achieved such different, unique results.  The progress arc was impressive too - everyone entered with a background in art, but by the end of the semester the projects looked like professional medical illustrations.  The sheer volume of work we all had to produce was an impressive feat in itself, but being able to see the amount of progress each student made is a true testament to the dedication of the students, faculty, and staff in the Biomedical Visualization program.

The work that the second year students presented was incredible!  After the first semester of the program, the range of classes opens up quite a bit.  Each student hand picks classes specific to their area of interest, which results in an enormous amount of variety in the work they show.  Aside from a  few standard classes that everyone takes (one  of  which  is a surgical illustration course which looks AWESOME), the coursework really branches  out, heading into 3D modeling,  animation, illustration, anaplastology,  haptics and virtual reality,  app and game design…the list goes on.  The work that the second years showed was really impressive and I’m eager to see what next semester looks like, especially with the haptics class!  The possibilities of what can be done with this technology are astounding, especially with regard to developing interactive teaching and learning tools for the medical field.  Developing this technology is going to revolutionize the field of medicine, and having the opportunity to be a part of it is extremely exciting and encouraging.

The first semester of grad school is over and I made it through the hazing period relatively unscathed.  The smell of formaldehyde is beginning to dissipate and the feverish dreams of dissection are slowly retreating into the deep recesses of my mind.  And in this moment of calm betwixt semesters, I look forward to further exploring the frigid, industrialized terrain that is the great city of Chicago.  Present to me your grand and wondrous secrets, Hog Butcher!

Do You Even Code, Brah?

Alright folks… the big reveal:

This semester I have been working on building a website from scratch and here it is, at long last!

Now, there ain’t a whole lotta bells’n’whistles yet…but now that I have a solid foundation, I will be working on it diligently with a tweak here and a tweak there to shine ‘er up!  As the semesters progress throughout the Biomedical Visualization program I will upload new photos of assignments, and there’s a link to this blog as well.  So take a gander!

This website has been an ongoing project in our Computer Applications class this semester.  We learned the building blocks of HTML and CSS, something I had never really looked into, or even had much knowledge or interest in.  The “internet” was just some volcano God that demanded virgin sacrifice in order to continue not killing all of us…or so I thought!  As shocking a revelation as it was for me, apparently normal human people created said internet, and any old codger with a keyboard can code if they put a li’l elbow grease in to it.

Working with HTML and CSS is like working on a puzzle – a wordy, code-y persnickety puzzle.  There’s a calming logic to it and, in the midst of all the chaos of human dissection and scientific research, acted as a divining rod of sorts for me throughout all the trials and tribulations of the semester.  Honestly, it was a whole lotta fun to learn!  For anyone who is interested, I highly recommend going to  It’s an easy-to-use introduction to coding and it accomplishes this miraculous feat while at the same time being fun, entertaining and engaging.  It’s like learning a secret language – plus you can scan websites and see how they were built and learn from them.  Not to mention all the super cool nerd jokes that make up the fine, silly fabric that is the interwebs.  But I digress.

With the launch of the website and the end of the semester mere *hours* away, I should have a few new projects to share soon.  Praise be to the Cyber Gods!

Plaster and Vaseline

The Horror

Another trip to the CFC further bridged the gap between the skills of an Anaplastologist and an Artist.  Finally, I feel like my undergraduate degree prepared me for something!  An afternoon watching one of the clinicians work on dental bridges and armatures for a silicon ear was an awesome and very educational experience.  In the Small Scale Metals Construction course in my undergraduate university, you learn how to construct jewelry and small scale works of art.  You cut down your metal, position it on solderite board, apply flux, solder the pieces together, sand the piece down, and buff it to a mirror sheen.  When casting precious metals, you first create what you want in wax, sprue it, invest it, cure it in an oven, pour liquid metal into the investment, cool it,  cut it, sand it, and finally polish it until you feel  arthritic.  These steps are almost identical to those used to make a prosthesis in Anaplastology.   Who knew that a prosthesis and a piece of jewelry could be so analogous!  The level of craftsmanship required to make these devices is incredible – a real art form.  The mark of a good  Anaplastologist is the ability to create  something so life-like that it’s nearly indistinguishable from the real thing, and some of the examples they have in the clinic are simply mind-blowing.

During this same visit, I got to act as the guinea pig for a nose impression.  After a generous application of Vaseline to my nose, lip and  eyebrows, a caulking  gun full of alginate put down the first layer of the mold, followed by a stiffer second layer after the first layer set.  Sitting in a dentist’s chair with your eyes closed and your face covered in Vaseline is just as glamorous as it sounds.  Attempting to carry on a casual conversation while not being able to breathe makes you sound like you have a severe cold, and accidentally smiling only loosens the mold from your face.  In the end, I just sat there, slack-jawed, like the mouth-breather that I am.  But it was for a good cause - practice and experience!  And I got rid of a few pesky nose hairs to boot.  Not a bad day.  After the mold was done, we made a plaster positive that will be used to make the actual silicon nose.  The process for casting the piece followed the same rules as mixing investment for a casting: hand mix the plaster to the right consistency, suck the air out, give it a whirl in the automatic mixer, vibrate all the bubbles out, then pour it into the mold.  Once everything sets up, you’re left with your perfect, chiseled stone nose, sniffing back at you like a statue of Adonis.

Next semester I begin to unravel the mysteries of Anaplastology, once and for all.  I’m looking forward to getting my hands dirty and working with some materials!  And something I’ve always been interested in: making an eyeball.  More on this as it develops.

Hi-Def Surgery In Amazing 3D

What "Virtual Reality" will always look like to me

Just when I thought it was impossible to put more on my plate, something as simple as a 15 minute conversation with an engineer has led me into an awesome, game-changer of a detour.  We visited the Graham Clinical Performance Center this past week and got to see some of the sophisticated methods they use in order to prep doctors-in-training for the real world.  The clinic specializes in creating realistic atmospheres and situations to train doctors in patient care, medical assessments, surgery, etc. They hire actors and give them a “script” (a list of conditions and symptoms) and have rookie doctors come in and work with them in order to correctly identify what ails them.  In another part of the clinic, they have staged operating rooms with extremely sophisticated dummies that are hooked up to life monitors and controlled remotely in another room, a la The Wizard of Oz.  The dummies are given a variety of different traumas that require immediate action…or they will die!  IVs must be administered with proper dosages, airways need to be cleared, and hemorrhaging must be controlled.   All of this takes place in a confined operating room with time constraints and active monitoring in order to accurately create an operating room environment.

One project they are currently developing is straight science fiction: haptics and virtual reality. Christian Luciano has developed a technology called “ImmersiveTouch” which uses augmented reality to recreate a virtual surgical training environment.  It would be impressive enough if it were just a three-dimensional VR module that allowed you to see your hands in the frame as you work on a patient.  Yes, that would be awesome.  But ImmersiveTouch lets the user FEEL WHAT YOU ARE TOUCHING.  The “haptic” function of the simulator is a small, pen-like device that is attached to a mechanical arm and motor.  When you look into the virtual world, you see your hand in a 3D landscape, holding whatever surgical tool the program specifies (scalpel, needle, drill).  So say you want to practice a lumbar puncture, because who doesn’t?.  You put on your 3d glasses, grab the haptic device and what you see is a fully rendered 3D patient with skin, muscles, arteries, nerves and bones laying in front of you.  You steady your hand, which is holding the needle in place of the actual pen, you move it into position, and you press it against the patient’s skin.  When you do so, the skin dimples around the end of the needle, then the motor-driven device responds and PUSHES BACK against the tool in your hand!  You push the needle and it will puncture the skin, then you have to apply more pressure to go through muscle, intervertebral disc, etc., each layer set to have a different density and, thus, requiring a different pressure with the tool.  When you touch bone, you can’t push it any further...  My brain almost exploded.

When I say 3D patient, I don’t mean a crappy, smooth, simply-rendered polygonal dummy body.  They use a combination of CT scans and MRIs to completely map out an actual human body with realistic skin and tissue textures, and you can go through each and every structure one by one.  The simulator lets the user remove the skin layer, the muscle layer, make cross-sections through any part of the body -  whatever someone would need to do in order to get the best view of approach for whichever surgical procedure they need to do.  The 3D glasses allow the user to shift their head from side to side, which changes their position relative to the patient.  The pen device can be switched out with simple tools such as scalpels and scissors, which plug directly into the machine for a more accurate feel.  Sweet Jesus! The future is now!

With the advent of this technology, surgeons will have the ability to meet with a patient well in advance of their scheduled surgery, take a full scan of their body and go into the simulator and practice the exact surgery that will be required for their patient.  They can foresee possible complications, see how structures in their body are associated to the surgical area, and *actually practice* the procedure as many times as necessary to become comfortable with the operation.  This is next-level surgical planning and will cut down on the risks of surgery and time under the knife.  A surgeon could, in real-time, perform a simulation of the surgery in front of the patient in order to show them what it will require.  Barring any hilarious, accidental virtual reality scalpel slips, this could do a lot to alleviate patient anxiety associated with surgery.

“Haptics and Virtual Reality” just so happens to be one of the courses available in the spring, and is taught by the man who created ImmersiveTouch himself! Needless to say, I had to rearrange my class load in order to jump on the haptics bandwagon – I’d be a fool not to.  The possible applications of this technology are extremely exciting and the advent of haptics and virtual reality integration in medicine is going to be HUGE.

Oh, the possibilities!

The End Is Nigh

The end of my first semester in the Biomedical Visualization program is quickly approaching.  Several large projects that have been works in progress throughout the semester are nearing completion, and the next couple of weeks are going to be hectic.  It’s been one hell of a ride so far, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to slow down until the day of graduation – but I’m looking forward to it.  As busy as it all of it has been, each day has offered an even more awesome, revelatory, and bizarre experience than the last.  Next semester I start the intro courses for the Anaplastology program.  That means I’ll be taking Craniofacial Anatomy… which means, dear reader, yet *another* semester of blogs, filled with wondrously detailed stories from the cadaver lab. Oh joy!  I’ll be bisecting human heads in my sleep come summertime.

The Anaplastology portion of the program is looking more and more interesting with every visit to the Craniofacial Clinic.  I’ve been volunteering with two other BVIS students this semester and we finally got some materials experience this week.  We worked with one of the second year students and learned how to make a proper mold of an ear, which in turn will be turned into a plaster cast.  This would typically be done on a patient in order to make a mirror match for an ear prosthesis.  It’s a very complicated and involved process which involves implanting posts in the bones of the skull for attachment, working with gold palladium hardware, soldering, casting, silicon injection, 3-D printing,  and a  host of other processes  of which I have only seen a fraction.  As limited as my experience may be in the area of prosthesis construction, I’m really looking forward to putting my skills in silversmithing and casting into practice.  BFA, don’t fail me now!

As far as the anatomy class is concerned, we are rapidly running out of body parts to dissect as we make our final descent into the lower limbs.  We have been working on the various compartments of the leg this past week and will be moving into the foot next week, followed closely by our final test.  After working on the head and neck for so many grueling hours, meticulously dissecting out tiny structures, working on the leg is like stumbling upon an oasis in the desert.  Humongous structures! Deep, muscular valleys and high, fatty peaks!  This section has been relatively tame compared to previous dissections – nothing nearly as cringe-worthy as, say, complete disembowelment or skinning off a face.  But I’ll get to repeat the whole process again next semester, so, stay tuned for that.

In my last post I was finishing up my last illustration project, which consisted of a multilayer drawing of a body, an anatomically correct skeleton fit inside said body, and then correctly positioning several organs within the skeleton.  I made a last minute change to the project which I think was a smart choice.  While the majority of the class produced a fleet of ripped, Greco-Roman supermen, I decided to draw someone with a li’l meat on his bones!  Behold!

A model  of masculinity to emulate

It was a rousing success and I felt good about the outcome.  I think we can all agree that full-figured men just don’t get the time in the spotlight they deserve.   More husky drawings to come!

Mazel tov! It's a boy!

Exploded sausages.  If this image offends you, I wouldn't read any further.

Another week in the cadaver lab, another week of horrifying and fascinating experiences!  I can now say that I am trained in the art of circumcision and can rest easy knowing that if this Biomedical Visualization thing doesn’t work out, I’ll just become a mohel.  This week’s lab could have been subcategorized as “Genital Mutilation 101,” and went as follows:  In addition to skinning a penis, I surgically freed testes from a scrotum and examined the ductus deferens.  Add vasectomy to my list of new skills.  I then bisected said penis and got to see all the internal wonders of man’s oldest chum.  Corpus cavernosum, spongiosum, urethra, glans – everyone was there at the most uncomfortable, terrifying party of the year.  The whole ordeal left me feeling quite verklemmt.  And as bad as that all was for me personally, the equally brutal dissection of the female cadaver next door left no stone unturned in the realm of indescribable experiences.  As fascinating as it all was, there is no tactful or polite way to bring up the topic of genital and reproductive organ dissection.  In polite conversation, there is no way to interject with “speaking of flayed penises…”  There is no non sequitur to get you where you need to be in order to tell friends, coworkers, loved ones about what you did that day.  So you write a blog instead.

...Add amputation to the list too  - this was an informative week!  After the crash course in neutering, we proceeded on to our next task: hemisection of the pelvis.  We brought out every surgeon’s most trusted and favored tool yet again – the  22” crosscut handsaw, $24.79.  Shop smart.  Shop S-Mart…Ya got that?!  When the oscillating bone saw just won’t do the trick, sometimes you need to go back to your roots, pick up your dear ol' pa's woodsaw, and get a-cuttin’.  The sacrum ended up being quite a chore, far more work than sawing through a human head, let me just tell you!  Freeing the leg was a necessary move in order to get to the sacral plexus.   If we’re being honest, I’m just glad that our cadaver is getting whittled down to more manageable pieces.  At the beginning of the semester, flipping Fezzik over required a small village.

Aside from the dissection, our drawing assignment this week has been pretty awesome.  In 3 separate layers, we have to illustrate a human figure, an anatomically accurate skeleton, and then properly place several organs within the illustration using anatomical planes and landmarks as our guides.  It’s been a pretty involved project, but quite informative and fun.   I’ll try to give an update on that project in the next blog.   In the meantime, our last assignment was to draw a human heart, which has been the most enjoyable assignment so far! I'll leave it here if you want to take a gander...

Until next time!

Mi corazon


The Re-Animator …Time stood still.  For a brief moment, the fine powder hung in the atmosphere around me as if suspended, absolutely motionless.  All at once the unpleasant, warm, dusty aroma filled my nostrils - a smell I wouldn't soon forget – as the particulates drifted down through the air, settling onto every surface within 5 feet of the stainless steel table.  The high-pitched whine of the saw echoed through the room like a dying cat.  I cut the power and placed it on the table next to the other instruments: hammer, chisel, hack saw.  A fog of dust clouded my vision as I shook my head and removed my glasses.  My attempts at blowing the fine, tacky powder off the lenses were futile.  I brushed the bone dust off of my sleeves and looked around the room.  The scene looked more like a woodshop than an operating room.  I looked down at subject before me, the head cut cleanly down the middle to the tongue.  The two halves stared off blankly in different directions. I was suddenly very aware of my teeth…

This week in Anatomy, our dissection tasks became more and more surreal, each day requiring something even more gruesome than the last.   Since the head and neck region is filled with such delicate structures, time is of the essence in and you must move quickly, lest your cadaver turn into jerky.  The dissection went as follows:

     Day 1: Remove face.

     Day 2:  Cut zygomatic through processes and mandible.

     Day 3:  Reflect head.

     Day 4: Bisect head.

The first step in this process was something straight out of Silence of the Lambs.  While making your most convincing Hannibal Lecter chianti-and-fava-beans slurpy noise, you remove the skin of the face with a scalpel as cleanly as possible.  I cannot stress this point enough: if your cuts aren’t clean, you aren’t gonna be able to fool the cops into escorting you off the premises of the crime scene and, ultimately, to FREEDOM.  Once you’ve given the subject the closest shave of their life, you can proceed with cleaning up the superficial structures of the face, make a few cuts with the ol’ bone saw, and move on to the next step.

Bonesaw.  He is ready.

          Now, it’s somewhat obvious by the descriptions above as to what each dissection will entail.  However, there are no words to fully prepare ANYONE for what to expect when “reflecting” a human head.  A range of equally terrifying and fascinating emotions accompanied this particular dissection.  In a nutshell, “head reflection” requires  you to insert  your  hands  into the neck  from  both sides, working  your fingers between all the scalene  muscles, veins, arteries , and nerves  until  your fingers meet behind the esophagus.  Once  you’ve accomplished this, you work  your fingers up and down, separating  all the connective  tissue  that  holds your throat  to your spinal column, until there  is  a clean plane from  the base of the skull to the thorax.  After this simple and ordinary task, it’s just a few scalpel cuts through the muscles of the back of the neck, a couple of well-placed blows with a hammer and chisel,a quick twisthereand a twist there to  break the atlanto-occipital joint…and Bob’s your uncle!  Once that’s all said and done, you’re left with a cadaver whose head dangles limply by the fleshy structures of the anterior neck, closely resembling this childhood toy:


          Head bisection, on the other hand, is much more straightforward.  You take your hack saw, aim it as close to the midline of the face as possible, and go to work.  The frontal bone takes some time, but once you get into the sinuses – wheooeeee! - does it go quick!  We got it about as dead-center as possible, cutting the nasal septum right down the middle.  With your trusty scalpel, you also get to complete the wonderful tasks of splitting the esophagus, uvula, and soft palate in half!  Once the saw pops out between your cadaver’s two front teeth, you’ve done it!

Finally, enough nightmare fodder to last a dozen lifetimes. Huzzah!

Anatomical Atlases!

Exploded_skull Despite the fact that last week I took the absolute *hardest* test I have ever taken to date (graduate level Anatomy is no joke!), the week couldn't have ended on a better note.  I knocked a big item off of my bucket list this week, fulfilling a fantasy of mine that only an anatomy geek would truly appreciate: To peruse the University of Illinois special collection of medical texts... Just thinking about it gives me chills!

In all honesty, it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, which sounds like a pretty serious claim, but it's true.  Ever since I became interested in medical illustration, I've been looking at these books and reading up on the history of the craft.  Some of the atlases are 500 years old and I never even thought it would be possible to see these illustrations in person.  Vesalius, Albinus, Jan van Rymsdyk, Bidloo - these are the titans of Anatomical Illustration.  If my brain had swelled any more from excitement and subsequently burst, running out  of my ears, *these are the guys who you'd want to draw that happening.*

Gravid Uterus

Jan van Rymsdyk has been a personal favorite of mine for years.  Years ago a fellow art student lent me her copy  of Human Anatomy from the Renaissance to the Digital Age (an amazing book on the history of medical illustration), and the Jan van Rymsdyk illustrations, and the etchings based his drawings, were some of the most gorgeous works of anatomical art I had ever seen.  He worked with the anatomist William Hunter to create The Anatomy of the Gravid Uterus Exhibited in Figures, which explores the different stages of fetal development inside the womb.  The atlas was groundbreaking at the time of its completion as it was the first resource of its kind that available to doctors and midwives.  The history surrounding the acquisition of these bodies, on the other hand, is a little "checkered" to say the least...  (research "burking" if you're interested in learning the ghoulish details - I feel I need to specify "Burke and Hale" so that you don't end up on the Burger King website, which was the top hit on Google...)

My God Rymsdyk - you magnificent bastard!

A few years ago I serendipitously ended up at an estate sale where I found what I thought may have been a single  page from the Gravid Uterus atlas.  There  was a large collection of medical texts and individual illustrations, including an original bound copy of the Andreas Vesalius atlas (which could be yours for a few tens of thousands of Francs!) - obviously the previous owner had been an avid collector.  Anyway, I escaped with a few coins in my pocket and an etching that was dated somewhere in the ballpark of 1780.  If nothing else, it was a really good copy and I was pleased to start my collection of medical illustrations and memorabilia.  Sure enough, that single page was in the atlas I saw on friday.  I was like a kid in a candy shop, drooling at what lay before me!  Whether it's actually an original or a reprint remains to be seen, but I am extremely happy to finally find out that my hunch was correct and that the mystery artist is, in fact, Rymsdyk.

And one last noteworthy item I'd like to point out about the special collection is that we were allowed to peruse these texts at our leisure.  No thick panes of glass, no velvet ropes, no cotton gloves - all of the atlases were laid out on the tables and we were given full access to them.  I couldn't believe it!  I soaked my hands in bleach beforehand and washed them several times...but they didn't know that.  My god, what if someone had eaten some chocolate or some cheese-powder-based snack before they went in there?!  Some of the books were 2x3 feet in size  and one book in particular was a lift-the-flap book.  I kid you not - hundreds of years old, with some images having 15 flaps with anatomical structures on both sides...Absolutely incredible.

I was only able to spend a short period of time there, not even enough to thoroughly thumb through a single atlas,  but it made my day.  I will definitely be going back the first chance I get.

And lastly, on top of everything else, they let us take the photos I've included in this blog post.  Enjoy!

Govard Bidloo