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When Brent Utter ’06 (Concord, N.H.) first considered working on a senior honors thesis, his goal was simple.

“I wanted to research anything I could get my hands on,” he says.

Utter, a mechanical engineering major, soon settled on a project that is not nearly as simple. He’s developing a method for surgeons to more accurately assess whether a brain aneurysm is in danger of rupturing.

“Aneurysms are an interesting medical problem because they are asymptomatic [not exhibiting symptoms] prior to rupture,” Utter explains. “However, if they do rupture, the outcome is often disablement or death.”

Utter says that while advances in medical imaging technology have increased the number of intact intracranial aneurysms (ICAs) found by surgeons, the aneurysms can’t simply be
removed because the surgery is very risky.

“An accurate assessment of the probability of an ICA rupturing is very important,” he says. “Currently, the mechanisms for aneurysm formation, rupture, and growth are not fully understood, but it is evident that hemodynamic forces [those related to blood circulation], such as pressure and wall shear stress [friction between blood and the blood vessel wall], play a role.”

Utter is using computational fluid dynamics (CFD) software, often used to analyze airflow over racecars, to calculate the wall shear stress distribution caused by the flowing blood within a set of model aneurisms.

“Each aneurysm I model will have a different shape, so each wall shear stress
distribution will have a different magnitude and shape within the aneurysm,” he says. “The goal of my project is relate the shape of the aneurysm with the magnitude of the average shear stress near the tip of the aneurysm. If the results come out as I hope, I will show that the more irregular an aneurysm is, the lower the average wall shear stress will be. This is important, because some researchers have found a significant link between an aneurysm’s wall shear stress and probability of rupture.”

Jenn Rossmann, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, introduced Utter to the concept and is serving as his thesis adviser.

“I am extremely happy about working with her because I know that she will push me farther than any other professor I know,” he says. “She has been challenging me academically since I took Thermodynamics II with her last semester. I don’t mind the challenge, because she is always there to encourage me when I become frustrated or confused.”

Utter, who conducted EXCEL Scholars research with Rossmann last summer, says three of the mechanical engineering courses he has taken, Numerical Applications, FiniteElement Analysis, and Fluid Dynamics, prepared him for his thesis.

“This project has personal importance to me because one of my friends in high school survived the rupture of an ICA,” he says. “Although we were not close friends, he comes to mind a lot when I think about what I am doing. I get very excited because the research I am doing now has not been previously done and I know it is relevant and timely.”

Utter adds that Lafayette has provided the environment he needs to successfully conduct his research and prepare for graduate studies.

“CFD software needs powerful computers in order to complete simulations in a timely manner,” he says. “Often, simulations can take days to calculate. Luckily, because I’m at Lafayette, I have access to a cluster of computers working in parallel that allow me to do lengthy simulations very quickly.”

And, he adds, he’s glad to be majoring in engineering at a school that also values the liberal arts.

“I bolster not only my technical aptitude, but also my critical thinking skills through classes in the social sciences and humanities,” he says.

Utter is a resident adviser and physics tutor. He’s also a former member of the crew club and math tutor.

Honors theses are among several programs that have made Lafayette a national leader in undergraduate research. The College sends one of the largest contingents to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research each year; 39 students were accepted to present their research at this year’s conference.

Categorized in: Academic News