It’s fair to say the pandemic changed everything we knew, from how we work to how we communicate to how we learn. However, it didn’t stop the need for any of those things, especially one student’s desire for knowledge. Elena Malott, from McNair Academic High School in New Jersey, has always been fascinated by the human body, particularly the brain, which she has investigated through tactility: dissections and lab experiments. Unfortunately, the pandemic upended those learning methods and forced online learning to become her way of life. Being entrenched in a virtual world led her to think outside the box to create fulfilling hands-on experiences in the field of biology. By doing so, she has 3D printed a larger-than-life brain using an experimental robotic printer developed for space applications.
Malott was taking an online summer course at Brown University, and one of her final projects was researching the occipital lobe of the brain. While doing so, she also learned about X-rays and MRI scans, mainly how they work and how to use them to identify specific diseases. She was working on the assignment in her dad’s office that houses a robotic 3D printer his company, AI SpaceFactory, is developing. As the printer was having some software issues and was stuck in a loop, the hot extruding plastic fell on the floor; it got tangled and began piling up. Her immediate thought was: “It looks like a brain.” However, her father explained what was wrong with the robot, and it was at that time when she noticed the correspondence between MRIs and 3D printers.
“A 3D printer takes slices of an image and layers them to make a physical object. MRIs work in the reverse, deconstructing a three-dimensional object into 3D layers,” describes Malott.
Immediately, she decided to 3D print a brain using actual MRI scans. However, this would involve using various software to translate from a physical object to digital and then back again. According to Malott, 3D printing and MRI scans are comparable in that they both employ “slicing” – a method of encoding 3D dimensional objects as stacked, two-dimensional layers – but work in reverse. 3D printing begins with a virtual model and builds up, layer by layer, to create a physical object, whereas MRIs deconstruct real-world objects into digital images.
The initial step was to take MRI scans and put them into a software called FreeSurfer, which uses the data to create a composite image of the brain. Then, she took the image and put it through the Mesh lab app to smooth down the images and remove any imperfections. After several modifications in FreeSurfer, she tried using Ultimaker’s slicing software for 3D printing Cura to create the model. But since she was using an experimental robotic printer instead of a desktop 3D printer, Cura couldn’t make a model the robotic printer could read.
Running out of options, Malott turned to AI SpaceFactory’s ropedancer.io software. The program is part of the Manhattan-based architectural studio’s innovative platforms to help them develop the construction technology that will expand human life on Earth and beyond. Space enthusiasts will remember AI SpaceFactory as the 2019 NASA centennial challenge winners for successfully constructing 3D printed Mars habitat MARSHA. Malott managed to translate Cura’s G-code into Rapid code, which the robotic 3D printer could understand.
Malott received training to operate the robotic 3D printer from AI SpaceFactory, which required supervision during printing. Even with the robotics, there was a lot of manual tending necessary for the print. The brain was split in half because there was an issue of support since the brain is not flat at the bottom. As anyone knows, sometimes it’s a lot easier to split a print in half than it is to clean up the supports on the bottom of an uncut model. After a few trials and errors, Malott had the printer running smoothly, with assistance from her during the print. In two days, Malott could fully print the brain, which weighed in at 75 kilos and measured 560 x 570 x 370 millimeters.
Through this experiment, Malott learned more about the unique ways 3D printing could be used for education and research in healthcare. For the project, she collaborated with Michael Quirk, Senior Vice President of Discovery Research at biopharmaceutical company Sage Therapeutics, who offered advice on practical applications. So far, their list includes demonstrating the effects of tumors, outlining the evolution of the brain, and mapping white and grey brain matter.
In the future, Malott would like to explore 3D printing with a material that has similar conductivity to that of white and grey matter. But for now, the high school student plans to donate the 3D printed brain to a museum or similar institution and expects to increase her knowledge of 3D printing technologies, the brain, and the innumerable ways the convergence of the two can help research and education in medicine.
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