NU SEDS Alumni | Aidana Massalimova

SEDS alumni

– Please tell us more about yourself.

I graduated from Nazarbayev University with a Bachelor’s in Electrical and Electronic Engineering degree in 2017.   I am currently pursuing my Ph.D. degree in Research in Orthopedic Computer Science group at the University Hospital Balgrist and the University of Zurich in Switzerland.

 – Could you tell us about your educational and professional background?

My first research experience happened to be at KAUST in Saudi Arabia in 2016, where I worked as a research intern on robotic computer vision algorithms. Since then I got enthusiastic about research after seeing how researchers are working towards incredible technologies. After this internship, I worked with Prof. Daniel Tosi on biosensors for tumor treatment applications as my capstone project.  I am really grateful that I worked on that particular project since I could finally discover the subject that I enjoy the most. Therefore, I decided to pursue my master’s degree in Biomedical Computing at the Technical University of Munich to enrich my knowledge of computer science and biomedical technologies.  Along with my studies, I worked part-time at R&D in the Digitalization and Automation Department of Siemens AG in Munich. This opportunity strengthened my programming skills and introduced me to R&D in the industry.  In the last semester of my master’s studies, I had a chance to do an exchange semester to work on my master’s thesis at ETH Zurich, where I worked on the topic of Alzheimer’s disease. Since I was fascinated by the research facilities in Zurich and opportunities in the biomedical engineering field, I was firm that I want to pursue my Ph.D. in Zurich as well.

 – What is your current research project? Why did you choose it?

My Ph.D. thesis’s title is called multi-modal intraoperative navigation in spine surgery. I am working on the pedicle screw insertion technique, which is a standard surgical procedure in spinal fusion. The main objective of this intervention is to stabilize the spinal segments through the insertion of a screw implant.  However, it is a very neat procedure, since the misplacement of the screw can lead to surgical complications such as nerve root compression and spinal cord injury. Therefore, we are trying to automate this procedure to alleviate human error by developing a robotic platform with physical intelligence. By physical intelligence here I mean different sensing capabilities including tactile, vibro-acoustic sensing, etc. Based on those sensors’ data we develop artificial intelligence algorithms that will allow navigating the robot and prevent perioperative complications. Since I am doing my research at the research campus of the orthopedic hospital, we actively collaborate and consult with surgeons. This allows me to receive direct feedback from clinicians and test my setup with them by conducting cadaveric experiments. Since I was always interested in both experimental and technical research, I found this project to be a perfect combination of both. My research involves technical integration of different technologies, experiments on both animal and human cadavers to collect the data and evaluate the setup, and obviously a lot of programming. Besides, my project is a part of an EU project called “Functionally Accurate Robotic Surgery (FAROS)”, where we collaborate with other institutions from Europe. Thus, I can exchange knowledge with my colleagues and learn to work in an international team.  Also, it involves frequent traveling to the collaborating institutions to work together, which is always nice.

 – What are your key research findings atthe moment?

The first step was the integration of multiple sensors and running them synchronously at the same time, which we executed as a team successfully and collected some nice data by running a set of cadaveric experiments. On the basis of that data, now we are working on developing deep learning-based algorithms that can detect breaching events based on vibroacoustic signals from drilling the bone. The preliminary results are so far promising, but we are still working on it currently. The objective of breach (undesirable surgical event) detection will be helpful to reorient the drilling direction of the robotic arm intraoperatively.

 – How did studying atNU SEDS help you in your career?

First of all, studying at NU SEDS provided me with a smooth kick-start in academia, especially in academic writing.  Writing tons of reports and working on several projects each semester are definitely bearing fruits. Besides, I learned how to study independently and manage my time efficiently, since we had many deadlines throughout the semester. Last but not least, it prepared me to integrate into an international environment owing to the close contact with our international professors.

 – What are your future plans?

In the future, I would like to continue working in the same field of surgical computer science and robotics. However, I am not sure about either academia or industry yet. I think this field has a lot of potentials and still a lot of research has to be done. From our experiments, I could definitely confirm that robots are much more precise and accurate than humans. However, I want to specify that our goal is not to steal the jobs from surgeons, but make their life easier by developing assisting robots.