A veterinary medicine professor at Iowa State University is developing digital tools that could help surgical students gain valuable experience with a scalpel. Diana Peterson is working with computer experts to create a virtual-reality operating room that could only be entered by students wearing special 3-D goggles.

“What they would see is a surgical suite with a patient on the table, whether that is a dog or a human,” Peterson says. “Then, they are the surgeon so they have to be able to figure out what surgical instruments they’re going to use and where they’re going to cut.”

Just as trainee-pilots improve their skills through flight simulators, Peterson says surgical students could benefit from a similar set-up. No surgery is routine, she says, so the students would face a series of challenges when they tackle the virtual operations.

“We have a lot of complication factors that we have programmed into the system so every time they go in, it will be a little bit different,” Peterson says. “They’re going to have to work on their feet and think quickly to realistically simulate what it would be like to be that surgeon.”

Peterson will use 3-D models to supplement the traditional 2-D representations in a veterinary anatomy class this fall and track how the students respond. She’s applying for grants for this process. If the project attracts enough funding, she hopes to have a virtual reality surgery suite running within three years at ISU.

By Pat Powers, KQWC, Webster City