February 04, 2008

Professor wins international award for invention

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. — An engineering professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale has won a top award in an international technology invention contest for his work on an improved brain mapping technique that allows surgeons to more accurately keep track of their location during an operation.

Ajay M. Mahajan, professor of mechanical engineering and energy processes in the College of Engineering at SIUC, won first place in the medical division of Create the Future Contest. His entry was one of about 1,000 high-tech inventions from individuals and institutions surveyed by a panel of judges made up of 40 engineers. The judges selected Mahajan's entry based on its ability to improve the efficiency and quality of health care, as well as its innovation, manufacturability, marketability and cost-effectiveness.

Mahajan won the award along with co-inventor Dr. Sumeer Lal, of South Carolina, a practicing neurosurgeon formerly of Carbondale.

SolidWorks Corp., a leading 3-D computer-aided design software company, and ABP International, publisher of NASA Tech Briefs magazine, sponsored the contest, along with others. The contest strives to reward the best ideas for new products and celebrate breakthrough thinking that solves problems of all kinds.

Mahajan won for his 3-D Ultrasonic Neuro-Navigation System for Real-time Brain Surgery. The system can help brain surgeons determine the location of their surgical instruments down to 1 millimeter in accuracy. His system uses sensors on the surgeon's probe that transmit ultrasonic signals to an array of receivers, which can pinpoint in near real time exactly where the probe is in relation to the patient's brain.

Mahajan sought to enhance existing brain surgery systems, which rely on stereoscopic cameras and electronics to orient the surgeon. Such systems cost up to $750,000 and are subject to failure at crucial moments if a surgery team member, for instance, accidentally bumps the operating table or blocks the vision-based system.

Mahajan's system costs about 10 percent as much as existing systems and is more robust. He is working with the makers of current systems to find ways to interface his technology with the existing ones, improving their reliability and accuracy. His system also might work as a low-cost alternative to existing technologies.

His system also has other applications. Caterpillar Inc., for instance, contacted Mahajan early last year about using the system to improve its ergonomics program, which examines how operators of the heavy equipment it manufactures move about in the driver's seat as they control the powerful machines.

Joe Pramberger, publisher, of NASA Tech Briefs magazine, which runs the contest, said the University can take pride in Mahajan's accomplishments.

"We had more than 1, 000 entries so you really have your work go under trial by fire to be selected for such an award," Pramberger said. "The benefit of this technology is clearly there. There is real human benefit to it. Inventions like this can saves lives and that's what it is really all about. It's a practical idea that impacts product design."

To enter the contest, Mahajan said he simply forwarded a 2004 article titled "Navigating the Brain" and written by SIUC Public Information Coordinator K.C. Jaehnig to the judging committee, along with a photo that accompanied the article. The article spelled out how Mahajan's technology worked and its applications.

In a funny twist to the story, Mahajan said he never expected to win and did not tell his wife, Preeti, he had entered. When Pramberger called Mahajan's home to inform him he had won, he was not home. Instead, Pramberger told Preeti to tell her spouse that Pramberger "had some good news" and that he should call him back.

"My wife thought it was telemarketer and didn't even give him my office number," Mahajan said. "She only told me about it as more of a joke than anything."

When Mahajan learned someone from the contest had called, he figured he had won a lesser prize at best, or there was problem with his entry, at worst.

"When I talked to Mr. Pramberger I was amazed that I had won first prize in the medical division," Mahajan said. "The contest is very well known in technical circles and I am excited by the news and the many possibilities it opens up."

As a top prizewinner, Mahajan will receive an invitation to attend the awards ceremony in April in New York City. The Discovery Channel also will feature his work in a segment and NASA Tech Briefs also will write a feature article about it scheduled to appear in April. Mahajan also will receive an HP xw4400 Workstation computer. Mahajan said he and his wife both are excited about attending the award ceremonies, especially because she has never visited New York City.

"I am particularly excited about the news segments on The Discovery Channel and the feature article in the NASA Tech Briefs," Mahajan said. "Both of those reach millions of viewers and that could be good for the University."

Ramanarayanan Viswanathan, interim dean of the SIUC College of Engineering, said the award was a great recognition for Mahajan and his collaborators.

"This is true especially considering the fact that this entry has won the first prize among over 1,000 entries in that category," Viswanathan said. "He is applying, in an innovative way, techniques in traditional electrical and mechanical engineering areas to the medical field."

Viswanathan said the award would be a boost for the college's newly created interdisciplinary biomedical engineering master's programs, as well.