Prepped for surgery at Shedd Aquarium’s animal hospital, the blackbar soldier is a fish out of water.
Unable to breathe on its own in the open air, the fish is kept alive with a mixture of saltwater and anesthetic manually passed through its gills. The sedation allows veterinarian Bill Van Bonn to examine the animal safely, and carefully remove a blinding cataract.
Van Bonn, Shedd’s vice president of animal health, is responsible for preventative healthcare, regular animal checkups, and a wide variety of surgical procedures whenever these are necessary. With more than 25 years of clinical veterinary experience and some 1,500 aquatic species under his care, Van Bonn says the manual sedation method has always seemed a technique ripe for improvement.
About five years ago, Shedd presented the challenge of ameliorating the process to a seemingly unlikely group: Northwestern undergraduates.
“Our fish anesthesiology project expanded on design work already started by Shedd,” says Stacy Benjamin, director of Northwestern’s Segal Design Certificate program.
The project began with biomedical engineering students at the University before being taken up by peers at the Segal Design Institute.
“The device that students prototyped uses three tanks to allow the anesthesiologist to decide what concentration of medicine to deliver,” says Benjamin.
The upgraded machine is portable and allows staff to modify the anesthesia’s strength with the push of a button. It’s also more accurate and lets veterinarians quickly switch to water-only, a process that speeds an animal’s recovery.
The prototype is one of about 20 created by Northwestern students for consideration at Shedd during a partnership that has spanned more than a decade. Each summer, Benjamin and other faculty meet with Shedd staff to hear about some of the aquarium’s latest challenges. The team then identifies projects that are suitable for first-year engineering students to solve, while more complex initiatives are directed to junior and senior students.
Student teams are currently working to improve how 1,500-pound beluga whales are X-rayed, enhance how quarantine habitats are cleaned, and more.
Senior Peter Haddad is one of three students developing a tool that might help Shedd clean animal environments better and more quickly. Today, scuba divers must enter the tanks about once a month to scrub algae and dirt off walls and floors by hand.
“We are the third group tasked with finding a solution that makes the diver’s job easier or that might allow staff to clean habitats from the outside,” says Haddad.
The team is pursuing several possible solutions, including an autonomous wall cleaning robot as well as the installation of pipes along habitat floors to use forced air or water to direct uneaten food and other debris toward filters.
One of the Northwestern-Shedd partnership’s greatest successes was creating a puzzle for the aquarium’s sea otters. The project gained local and national media attention.
“Not only did the vertical maze have to be able to endure corrosive saltwater, but it also had to be strong enough to withstand the otters themselves,” says Van Bonn. “We can’t buy otter toys at the local pet store and our expertise as veterinarians is obviously not in engineering. The students presented us with a creative way for our otters to exercise their natural curiosity.”
Installed behind the scenes at Shedd, the maze fits within a window opening between the otters’ pool and trainers’ area. That placement allows aquarium staff to insert a shrimp-filled ball and watch as an animal moves it through holes in plastic shelving until the treat can be retrieved.
“It’s nice to work with Shedd as a client because they understand the complexity of the design process and they’ve got a real research mindset about it,” says John Anderson, Segal Design Institute lecturer. “The aquarium is a large and diverse organization continually improving its processes, and Shedd experts are used to open-ended problem solving.”
First-year students in Design Thinking and Communication and their older counterparts in DSGN 384 Interdisciplinary Design are taught project management and design skills, as well as how to communicate with clients. Beyond Shedd, the multidisciplinary groups — which frequently include non-engineers majoring in theater, psychology, economics, and other fields — have also helped design solutions to overcome physical disabilities. Clients who have benefited from this undergraduate research include the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, Lamb’s Farm, and others.
“It’s really important for these students to learn how to get the best out of themselves and the best out of each other,” says Anderson. “These interdisciplinary teams are confronting problems that cannot be solved by one person. The result is a solution based on a true team effort.”
The original version of this story was published in Northwestern's research newsletter.