Student-designed lead vests could protect surgeons, improve patient outcomes

April 5, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Sam Boland, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering at Penn State, became aware of a unique problem in the medical field during a conversation with his uncle.

“When doing surgeries with radiation imagery, he told me about how wearing the lead vests can lead to all sorts of orthopedic injuries,” Boland explained.

His uncle, a cardiac surgeon, was speaking from experience. Injuries are unfortunately commonplace for surgeons, leading to chronic pain and sometimes shortened careers due to injuries from wearing lead vests.

What Boland didn’t expect is a chance to solve this problem during his undergraduate education.

In the mechanical engineering capstone course, ME 440, students are charged with tackling a tangible problem for real-world clients, and a project proposal on the issue immediately jumped out at him.

“It was definitely the personal connection with my uncle that inspired me to take on this project,” Boland said.

Doctors need to wear lead vests because radiation imaging is used frequently during minimally invasive surgeries, such as heart or vascular procedures. The imaging allows doctors to get visual feedback during surgery, but the technology also poses a radiation risk. To mitigate the exposure, surgeons wear heavy vests during any procedures using radiation imaging.

“After years and years of having to wear a 40-pound vest for eight hours a day, it can really wear out your joints,” Boland noted.

The initial project, creating a new support apparatus to decrease the strain on the surgeons, was proposed by Rachael Snow, a vascular surgeon at Penn State Hershey. Through her sponsorship, the team learned about this problem and the different variables that need to be in the solution to make it workable.

With Rohan Hattangady, Thomas Derby, and Rebecca Stem, seniors majoring in biomedical engineering, their job for the semester was to engineer a new apparatus for surgeons to wear the vests and be protected from radiation, while providing top performance and ease of movement. They are one of two teams in the course tackling this project.

The capstone teams often combine different disciplines within engineering to increase collaboration and inspire innovative solutions. “As a mechanical engineer, my role has been leading the design process and understanding the manufacturing,” Boland said. “The biomedical engineers have a stronger understanding of the body and how the ergonomics need to work.”

The team spent weeks debating on the best design, combining the necessary functions to protect surgeons from the radiation while not inhibiting the surgeon’s movement or ability to perform surgery. One existing solution to this problem is a zero-gravity lead vest which mimics the form of a recreational basketball hoop with a rolling base and a boom arm with a lead vest suspended from it.

“But those are bulky and hard to move around,” Boland said. “They’re also incredibly expensive.”

Their goals presented a Herculean task, compelling the team to create several different design prototypes. “You learn by making mistakes and that is so true in engineering design,” Boland said. “If you spend all your time on one prototype, you’ll always find things you weren’t expecting.” The student team instead designed several iterations in CAD, and worked to improve every subsequent design.

“Our main goals were to design a solution that is less bulky, doesn’t get in the way of their job, and is inexpensive,” Boland explained.

Their first idea, creating a rolling stand to hold a lead shield, was too cumbersome since it needed a second set of hands in the operating room to move. “That’s not great, because that’s another person exposed to the radiation that doesn’t need to be,” Boland said.

But the team believes they’ve found their solution.

Their prototype is a rolling structure that suspends the lead vest, conforming to the shape of the surgeon’s body. It also features a moving joint behind the surgeon’s back, which allows them to move laterally and bend forward without any outside assistance.

“We noticed the doctors spend a lot of time bent over the patient and reach up to grab instruments so we knew it couldn’t be rigid,” he said. “The joint in the back solves those problems.”

In addition to problem solving using engineering, the collaboration helps prepare the seniors for their imminent transitions to the professional world. By strategizing and designing this product, they’re building the skills they need to oversee large-scale products and projects. “This isn’t something you’d normally be able to do while you’re in school,” Boland added.

“This has the potential to be a real amazing solution to an important problem,” Boland said. “The ultimate goal is to commercialize the device and mass-produce it for surgeons to use everywhere.”


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Erin Cassidy Hendrick

The team studies their design.

Sam Boland, Rohan Hattangady, Thomas Derby, and Rebecca Stem study the design for their capstone project, a better-engineered lead vest for surgeons.

“This has the potential to be a real amazing solution to an important problem. The ultimate goal is to commercialize the device and mass-produce it for surgeons to use everywhere.”



The Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering at Penn State is one of the nation’s largest and most successful engineering departments. We serve more than 1,000 undergraduate students and more than 330 graduate students

We offer B.S. degrees in mechanical engineering and nuclear engineering as well as resident (M.S., Ph.D.) and online (M.S., M.Eng.) graduate degrees in nuclear engineering and mechanical engineering. MNE's strength is in offering hands-on experience in highly relevant research areas, such as energy, homeland security, biomedical devices, and transportation systems.

Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering

137 Reber Building

The Pennsylvania State University

University Park, PA 16802-4400

Phone: 814-865-2519