16-year-old Greenwood Village native Krithik Ramesh poses for a picture after winning the Gordon E. Moore Award at the International Science and Engineering Fair in Phoenix, Arizona last month.
BY AJ HECHT
You may have heard of Krithik Ramesh.
The 16-year-old Cherry Creek High School student has been everywhere, having been recently featured on several of Denver’s TV news stations, in the Denver Post, on Colorado Public Radio, and even a few national publications, like Forbes and Bloomberg.
The reason? His science fair project.
Yes, his science fair project.
But Ramesh, who hails from Greenwood Village, wasn’t building a baking soda volcano or growing peas in an old egg carton. No, he spent the better part of nine months working on a project that could very well revolutionize a complicated surgical procedure.
“It’s a navigation system for spinal reconstruction surgery,” he explained. “I developed a live-time navigation system that uses machine learning to predict spine biomechanics and behaviors to optimize the surgical approach.”
Using a database of over 2,000 images of spinal structures from around the world and three separate machine learning algorithms, the system uses a Microsoft HoloLens to give the surgeon an augmented-reality view of the patient’s spine, which shows the projected effects of the placement of screws, as well as the targeted spinal position.
Ramesh’s project–which earned him the $75,000 Gordon E. Moore Award at the prestigious Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) last month–proved to be so accurate that it has the potential to replace the current industry standard.
“The current system of navigation they use is called fluoroscopy, which is a live-time x-ray that allows the surgeon to see into the patient in live time,” he said. “But it imposes significant physiological harm to the patient, as well as the surgical team, because it emits a lot of radiation.”
But the radiation isn’t the only downside to the procedure.
“[Fluoroscopy] has limited visual acuity,” Ramesh continued. “You’re viewing a three-dimensional structure on a two-dimensional plane, so you lose a lot of pertinent information.”
The loss of that vital information shows in the success rate of the surgery.
In his project, Ramesh cites a University of Minnesota Department of Orthopedic Surgery study, which found that the screw placement accuracy for fluoroscopy is just 76 percent.
“That’s a pretty alarming number considering you’re putting screws in somebody’s spine,” he said.
So he set out to improve it.
But his new system, like a lot of scientific discoveries throughout history, wasn’t something he sought out.
While playing Just Dance on his XBOX–a video game which scores players on their ability to match dance moves–Ramesh became curious about the motion tracking technology used to assess each player’s dancing. As he tinkered with the device, he began to wonder about other ways to apply the technology.
It snowballed from there.
Krithik Ramesh, a Cherry Creek High School senior, explains his new, augmented reality aid for spinal reconstruction surgery, to a judge at the International Science and Engineering Fair in Phoenix, Arizona last month.
After enough research, Ramesh eventually dove headfirst into the world of neurosurgery and developed the algorithms that will teach the augmented reality system–the HoloLens–the predicted effect of each screw.
Using a pre-operation CT Scan and MRI–significantly reducing the patient’s exposure to radiation–the system compares with the library of 2,000 spinal structures to determine the optimal locations for screws.
Unlike fluoroscopy, the machine learning technology also accounts for the effects of the entire spine, not just the area around the location of the screw.
Ramesh’s program is also significantly cheaper than fluoroscopy, which can sometimes cost up to $250,000, limiting access to the technology in developing countries around the world–which Ramesh says have the highest rates of spinal disorders–and even rural areas in the United States.
But perhaps the most dramatic impact of the technology is the increased accuracy of the screw placement during spinal reconstruction surgery. Ramesh was able to achieve a stunning accuracy rate of over 98 percent, blowing the 76 percent accuracy rate of fluoroscopy out of the water.
The number also bested that of similar systems developed by Johns Hopkins University and MIT.
Needless to say, the system impressed the ISEF judges, who deemed Ramesh worthy of the Moore Award, the top prize at the annual international fair
The accomplishment, one Ramesh had been working toward for several years, was extremely humbling for the CCHS senior.
“It didn’t really set in until my friend said it, but it meant I had the number one science fair project in the world. I don’t like to think of it that way, but it is that,” he said. “It is the pinnacle of science at the pre-collegiate level, so it’s very humbling to see that people were able to appreciate my research to the extent that I did.”
But one of his primary motivations, he says, isn’t awards, or interviews, or Instagram followers. It’s making a difference. And that’s what pushes him to run a non-profit organization in what little spare time he has.
Also a member of the swim and debate teams, and involved in several school clubs, Ramesh helms Empowering Rural India, an organization that helps to provide sustainable energy to schools in rural India.
Recently, while Ramesh was working on his ISEF project, the organization was able to pay for the installation of solar panels at a school in Deviyakurichi, Tamilnadu, India.
By providing a dependable, sustainable energy source, Ramesh hopes that the school will have the financial flexibility to make other upgrades to the facility and further opportunities for the government school’s students.
And as he moves forward toward applying for college–he has his sights set on schools like Stanford, MIT and Harvard–and later on in the professional world, he’ll continue to use that desire to make a positive impact as a motivator.
Following college, Ramesh plans on sticking around in academia, or moving towards the entrepreneurial side of medicine, where he can work on the cutting edge of machine learning technology and, perhaps, develop even more revolutionary uses for it that will have a positive effect on others.
“Robotics is the next frontier in surgery because it’s minimally invasive and the accuracy is better than any surgical hand,” he said. “But the end goal has always been [making an impact]. You don’t always focus on that when you’re working on an algorithm, but when you take a step back and get to see the whole thing, you’re like, ‘This is what I wanted. This is the amalgamation of all that hard work.’”
For more information on Ramesh’s non-profit organization, Empowering Rural India, or to make a donation, visit empoweringri.org.
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