Student's research a model way to stand out

Connor Stapp, a senior bioengineering major, said his research is the perfect foundation for a career in acute pediatric care nursing. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

Connor Stapp knew he wanted to pursue a medical career when he entered college, but he also knew he needed to distinguish himself from others heading into the same field.

That is where his bioengineering degree from George Mason University will come in handy.

“Not a lot of people go into the medical field with an engineering degree,” said the senior who will graduate in May. “I feel like it makes me stand out.”

What really stands out about Stapp is his work creating a biomechanical model of a pelvic floor, a project that includes assistant bioengineering professors Qi Wei and Parag Chitnis, associate professor Siddhartha Sikdar, and Seyed Abbas Shobeiri, a gynecological surgeon at Inova.

Creating a generic model is the first step to creating patient-specific models that can identify women who might injure their pelvic floors during vaginal deliveries and would benefit from a C-section, Shobeiri said.

Musculoskeletal research is complicated, he said, because it must take into account geometry, pelvic floor architecture, tissue strength, and the force generated by various organs.

Helping the research is the software, Opensim. Developed at Stanford University, the software models and simulates muscle force and movement, which will help George Mason researchers determine the accuracy of their model.

Stapp, who has been supported by three grants from the Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities, and Research (OSCAR), has been the primary builder of Mason’s model, Wei said. There are plans to expand its reach to help predict how pelvic floor disorders can cause hernias and urinary dysfunctions.

With the National Institutes of Health reporting that one-third of U.S. women are affected by some sort of pelvic disorder, this is research of consequence.

“What will make it different is that it can be adjusted to each patient,” Stapp said. “We’ll be able to adjust things like muscle parameters, so it more accurately reflects each patient. There are not really any models that have done that, so we’re kind of on the forefront of developing a clinical model.”

“I’m impressed by him,” Wei said. “He has a sense of what research is about and what he needs to do. I do give him supervision, but he doesn’t need to be micromanaged.”

The research will continue at Mason after Stapp graduates, but, as he said, “Knowing a lot of the building blocks for it are of things I’ve done is really worthwhile.”

He believes his pelvic floor research is the perfect foundation for a career in acute pediatric care nursing.

“A lot of that field has diagnostic tools and models,” he said. “To have the technical background to be able to work with these devices is a big advantage.”

So has been his time at Mason, where Stapp said he relished the diversity of the student population and his professors “who know what they’re talking about.”

“The professors are very welcoming,” he said. “They want to know their students, and that was what I was looking for.”