Trainee Q&A: Claire Vannelli, MESc Candidate

Claire Vannelli, MESc Candidate, is looking at the imaging techniques used in cardiac surgery for patients with valve diseases. Vannelli is pursuing her training in Biomedical Engineering and is supervised by Robarts scientist Terry Peters, PhD.

In this Q&A, she discusses her current research project, the training environment at Robarts, and balancing life as a trainee and student athlete.

What does your research focus on?

I’m looking at the imaging techniques clinicians use to acquire images of heart valves that are diseased or valves that are failing in the cardiac system, and looking at how we can improve those techniques. The aim is to create better models for surgical planning and practice, and potentially aid in diagnosis as well.

Heart phantom

My research focuses on the qualitative valve assessment performed by clinicians. Specifically, assessment done through transesophageal echocardiography (TEE) imaging, which is an ultrasound with a probe within the esophagus. It’s the imaging technique used for mitral valve disease. I’m looking at validating the use of ultrasound by comparing it to dynamic cardiac CT. The reason I’m trying to validate the use of ultrasound is because it provides real-time imaging and can be put down the esophagus where we have a really nice view of the mitral valve.

CT image

I’m also making patient-specific models of mitral valves. With the mitral valve, there are many topologies. It’s a highly variable tissue in the body, so from the patient ultrasound data we can make a 3D model of the valve. In the clinic, surgeons then have the opportunity, especially before a minimally invasive procedure, to assess the valve more accurately, hold the model, and we can also put the model in the heart phantom to mimic a beating heart.

What is the potential impact of your research on cardiac patients?

My work is part of a larger effort to improve image-guided procedures. This entire project on personalized valve models provides options for patients who have mitral valve disease or other valve diseases who cannot undergo conventional cardiac surgery. The more we can provide surgeons with tools and improved imaging techniques, the better we will be able to provide these types of patients with equal treatment outcomes, as if they were able to have conventional open heart surgery.

What motivates you in pursuing this type of research, and combining engineering with basic science?

I see engineering as a dynamic science. It takes what we know and says, “Okay let’s improve or modify to allow for improved quality of life.” I love that engineering has taken my interest in biology and done something with it.

I’ve also always had medicine around me. My parents are doctors and my older sister is in medical school. Medicine was always very present around the dinner table. My father is a cardiac anesthesiologist, which makes for interesting conversations. He sees TEE imaging from the clinical side and how it needs to work on a functional level to be able to diagnose and intraoperatively monitor patients. It has helped inform some of my ideas.

What is your education and research background in this area?

I went to Duke University in North Carolina for my undergraduate degree. I studied biomedical engineering and English. It was a rowing scholarship that initially brought me to Duke.

Between by third and fourth years, I was thinking about coming back to London, where I was born and raised, because London is such a hub for bio technology. I had some exposure to research labs at Duke, but I really wanted to gain new perspective and opportunity.

After some research, I contacted Dr. Peters and I did a four-month summer student term working on the electronic mechanisms of the heart phantom and making it pump.

What appealed to you about training at Robarts?

I knew I wanted to be in London and doing research specifically with a biomedical application. Both my parents are clinicians in the London hospital system, so Robarts came to their minds as a place I needed to look into.

When I looked into the research taking place at Robarts, I thought it was out of this world what the Peters lab was working on – giving doctors x-ray vision, the ability to see through skin during surgery and improving minimally-invasive surgical procedures. I thought the work was such a beautiful marriage between the medical world and engineering, and that if I could contribute to any one of those projects in any way it would be very impactful.

I’ve loved rediscovering the London community. Western is the one school where I have felt pride for it at a young age. Both my parents went to Western for their undergraduate and medical degrees. My sister also completed two degrees here. I kind of grew up around the campus, and I’ve always been a ‘bleeding purple’ Mustang. So it was really amazing to have the opportunity to work at an institution like Robarts with its connection to Western.

Describe your experience training with Western University's varsity rowing team?

Another one of my goals with doing graduate school here was to join the Western rowing team. It’s the best. If you’re looking for excellent rowing in Canada and abroad, this is where you want to do it. That was another factor in my decision to go to school here. The caliber of the coaches and the athletes is very high.

The competitive season for Western is from September to November, so I’ll be training over the summer. I’m used to getting up early. Even if I want to snooze my alarm when I’m in bed, by the time I get to the lake, the sky is pink and the water is flat – it’s beautiful.