CAD software helps to find new cures for children

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To improve medical procedures in pediatric otolaryngology, at Stanford University engineering and medical know-how is integrated to create advanced medical devices (photo: iStock)

Dr. Tulio A. Valdez incorporates engineering tools like Solid Edge to create advanced medical devices that he uses to improve medical procedures. Furthermore, the surgeon and scientist affiliated with Stanford University is fostering science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, especially among minorities students.

Dr. Tulio Valdez, associate professor, Otolaryngology, Head & Neck Surgery Divisions at Stanford University, is not an ordinary doctor. He incorporates engineering practices to create advanced medical devices that he uses to improve medical procedures.

At the top of the list of things Tulio Valdez is passionate about is limiting his patient’s exposure to radiation during diagnostic testing. At the lab he created – the Valdez Research Lab at Stanford Medicine – he and colleagues design advanced medical devices that reduce the need for radiation. To do this, Tulio Valdez advocates for and uses advanced engineering tools and techniques, such as Siemens Solid Edge software.  

Engineering approach enables better diagnoses 

“We are trying to find better ways of diagnosing infections without CT scans,” says Tulio Valdez. His problem-solving technologies combine medical knowhow with engineering principles. This approach originated from two years he spent at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he was part of the Laser Biomedical Research Center. After MIT, “my mind started working in a different way,” he says. “I see problems as a physician, but I find solutions mostly like an engineer.”

Simulating surgery in pediatrics

Valdez’s lab has developed pediatric-specific surgical simulators for use around the world. “We are firm believers that surgical training is a gradual process, and basic techniques and surgical fundamentals can be learned in surgical models prior to being performed in patients.” Solid Edge software, which Tulio Valdez was introduced to at MIT, plays an important role.

I spend half my time seeing patients. This is where I get my ideas for problems that I want to resolve in the lab.
Dr. Tulio Valdez, Associate Professor, University Medical Line, Otolaryngology, Head & Neck Surgery Divisions at Stanford University

The goal is to use optical tools and digital recordings to study and treat disease processes, analyze the way they interact with patients and teach surgery, he says. Collaboration with experts from various professional fields led to the development of anatomical models for resident doctors to practice surgery.

“We are able to simulate – and 3D print – a lot of things for our everyday use,” Tulio Valdez says. “It’s so easy to use the software to engineer new instruments, or parts of instruments. This allows us to not get stuck because we don’t have the right piece of equipment. Instead, we just print it out.” 

The inspiration for his work comes from his patients. “I spend half my time seeing patients and this is where I get my ideas for problems that I want to resolve in the lab,” he says.

It’s so easy to use the software to engineer new instruments. This allows us to just print it out.
Dr. Tulio Valdez, Associate Professor, University Medical Line, Otolaryngology, Head & Neck Surgery Divisions at Stanford University

Working toward a diversified workforce

Tulio Valdez, who was born and raised in Colombia, South America, and attended medical school at the Universidad Javeriana in Bogota, is driven by helping others and believes strongly in the importance of diversifying both science and engineering. “There is such a need to enhance the pipeline of underrepresented minorities,” he said. “At every place that I worked, I’ve been the only Hispanic. Now I am a mentor for a lot of minority students.”

Except for a current break during the Covid pandemic, Tulio Valdez’s lab enlists minority high school and college interns to work at his lab. The program, called Stanford Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery (OHNS) Surgical Simulation Mentorship Program, gives students hands-on experience while fostering interest in pursuing science and engineering careers.

As a way to encourage disadvantaged students to enter fields such as medicine, which may seem daunting to some of them, Tulio Valdez believes it’s important to create awareness and accessibility to science and engineering career paths as early as possible. The goal is to increase diversity in the health professions to provide better care for people living in underserved communities.

Through OHNS, many of his students work on the design of surgical simulation models using Solid Edge. These digital models are then 3D printed and cast in silicone, then used as teaching tools.

Sahith Kudaravalli, was a high school senior at Bellarmine College Preparatory and a research intern at Stanford OHNS when he was accepted to join Tulio Valdez at his lab following the end of his internship. His focus was on 3D modeling and simulation.

“Dr. Valdez took me as an intern at his lab during my junior and senior year of high school and introduced me to the basics of the surgical simulation work that was being done by his team,” Sahith Kudaravalli says. “To gain experience with 3D printing, which was the method through which the team brought the simulation models to life, I started off learning everything from how to use a slicing application for 3D printing, to how to calibrate the printer, to how to upload and start a print, to how to troubleshoot a print.”

Sahith Kudaravalli says the first time he was able to put his learnings to use was when he printed an anatomical model of a tonsil whose G-code file was already uploaded to the printer. “Other simulation models that I 3D printed and casted with silicone include those resembling laryngeal abnormalities such as laryngeal cleft and laryngomalacia, which is a common cause of noisy breathing in infants. My first solo task was modeling a replica of a kind of inflammation of the tongue.”

To create a model of the lingual tonsil that could be used for simulation, Sahith Kudaravalli was guided through the full design process, from drawing rough sketches, to modeling and revising it using computer-aided design software, to finally 3D-printing and silicone casting the lingual tonsil. “Through the program, I have also learned how to research and write scientific papers,” he says.

Currently, Sahith Kudaravalli is a first-year undergraduate student at Duke University, where he is on a pre-medicine track. “Before interning under Dr. Valdez’s mentorship, I was already thinking about a career in medicine, but my experience at the lab solidified this interest and added a new perspective,” he said. “I observed firsthand the interconnectedness between medicine and engineering, and I realized how a physician with skills in both disciplines can reimagine new ways to deliver medical education and lay the groundwork for tomorrow’s patient care.”

We need to capitalize on all of the available talents of our population
Dr. Tulio Valdez, Associate Professor, University Medical Line, Otolaryngology, Head & Neck Surgery Divisions at Stanford University

STEM education for minorities students

As this student’s career shows, Tulio Valdez’ passion is fostering science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, especially among minorities students, and helping to expand the medical and engineering professions with underrepresented minorities.

He does so by giving students the right mentorship and the best tools. “The key takeaway is the need to capitalize on all of the available talents of our population,” Tulio Valdez says.

“Suppose we educate our kids from underrepresented backgrounds that lack mentoring and tech resources. We will improve the pool of people contributing to society to their full potential and solve inequalities.” It’s an ambitious purpose, but Tulio Valdez is used to fulfilling goals that others thought were beyond his means.


April 2022

Dr. Tulio A. Valdez is a surgeon scientist born and raised in Colombia with a subspecialty interest in Pediatric Otolaryngology. He attended medical school at Universidad Javeriana in Bogota Colombia before undertaking his residency in Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery in Boston. He completed his Pediatric Otolaryngology Fellowship at Texas Children’s Hospital (2007), Houston and obtained his Master’s in Clinical and Translational Research at the University of Connecticut.

Clinically, Dr. Tulio Valdez has an interest in airway surgery and swallowing disorders. He has a special interest in the management of sinus disease in cystic fibrosis. Dr. Tulio Valdez has co-authored one textbook and numerous book chapters and scientific manuscripts. Dr. Tulio Valdez continues his clinical research in these areas, particularly with a focus on aerodigestive disorders.

Scientifically, Dr. Tulio Valdez has developed various imaging methods to diagnose otitis media and cholesteatoma a middle ear condition that can lead to hearing loss. He was part of the Laser Biomedical Research Center at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His research includes novel imaging modalities to better diagnose ear infections one of the most common pediatric problems. His research has now expanded to include better intraoperative imaging modalities in pediatric patients to improve surgical outcomes without the need for radiation exposure. 

Dr. Tulio Valdez believes in the multi-disciplinary collaborations to tackle medical problems and has co-invented various medical devices and surgical simulation models.