From Space to Surgery: Student revamps NASA technology for cardiologists

NASA’s high-tech inventions aren’t just for outer space. Through the NASA Technology Transfer Competition, UA students are able to take NASA patents and re-envision them for use on earth.

Virginia Morgan, a senior studying neuroscience in New College, re-envisioned a panoramic lens—which NASA designed to measure heat distribution efficiency in rocket engines—and retooled it to improve heart surgery.

“When doctors perform heart surgery, they often try to look at the walls of a heart valve, but their cameras only look straight ahead,” Morgan said. “It’s like sticking an ordinary lens into a garden hose and trying to get a good image of the hose walls; it’s hard to get the lens at the right angle.”

But with a panoramic lens, getting that image becomes a lot easier.

Morgan’s project initially began as an assignment for one of her classes that allows her to pursue a bachelor’s degree in science, technology, engineering, or math while earning a master’s degree in business administration. In the class, she was paired with three other students to create a business proposal, which she presented first to the class and then to representatives from NASA.

The group went on to win the NASA Technology Transfer Competition, and following the win, Morgan and one of her partners, Cory Efird, a senior studying mechanical engineering, followed through on their design and decided to pursue a licensing and patent agreement with NASA. The students’ design also came in third place at UA’s annual Edward K. Aldag Jr. Business Plan Competition, which was held earlier this year. As a part of that competition, they received specialized consulting in business development and $2,000 to create a prototype.

“I’ve been talking to cardiologists to see if it’s something that they would actually use or like,” Morgan said. “So far they are really interested—which is exciting because, for a lot of physicians, once they have been trained to use a certain tool, going back to learn something new can be really difficult.”

Dr. Rob Morgan, the executive director of UA’s STEM path to the MBA program, says that while he doesn’t expect all of the students to become entrepreneurs, he does hope that they all come away from the experience better prepared to create innovative products.

“Ginger’s team saw a lens for a camera that would allow you to take pictures of a 360-degree panorama, and wondered how that concept could be applied in the world to solve a problem,” Dr. Morgan said. “Using the lens, after miniaturizing it, to view the inside of a cardiac vessel was a brilliant leap.”