Albert S. Woo, FACS is a board-certified plastic and reconstructive surgeon who specializes in the treatment of cleft and craniofacial anomalies. This work has led to a particular interest in three-dimensional imaging and printing of complex surgical models. He is an Associate Professor of Surgery, Pediatrics, and Neurosurgery at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and serves as the Chief of the Division of Pediatric Plastic Surgery, Director of the Cleft and Craniofacial Center at Hasbro Children’s Hospital, and Director of the new Lifespan 3D Printing Laboratory.
Besides medical 3D printing, Dr. Woo’s clinical interests include the surgical treatment of patients with craniosynostosis, complex and syndromic craniofacial abnormalities, and cleft deformities. In particular, he is internationally recognized as an expert in cleft palate repair, after having developed a new surgical technique for this procedure. He is also nationally recognized for his expertise in Endoscopic Craniosynostosis Surgery, with numerous papers and national presentations on the subject. With more than 60 peer-reviewed publications, numerous chapters and a book, Dr. Woo remains committed not only to clinical excellence but also to advancing research in the treatment of craniofacial anomalies.
Dr. Woo currently is a member of numerous societies including the American College of Surgeons, the American Society of Maxillofacial Surgeons, the American Cleft Palate-Craniofacial Association, the American Association of Plastic Surgeons, and the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including recognition by Best Doctors in America since 2011 and Castle Connolly’s Top Doctors. Dr. Woo recently co-founded a startup, Implant3D.
Jenny: When was the first encounter you had with 3D printing? What was that experience like? What were you thinking at that moment?
Albert: It was probably during my craniofacial surgery fellowship over a decade ago that I first encountered a 3D printed surgical model. I was amazed at the incredible detail that was present in these models and the fact that they could be sterilized for use in the operating room. Plastic surgeons have been using these types of models for decades now but the incredible power of this technology never ceases to fascinate me.
However, the biggest impact to me came when I obtained our first grant to purchase a professional-grade 3D printer in 2015. This dramatically affected my practice. For the first time, I had control over the 3D models that we printed without going through the multiple steps of ordering it through a vendor. We were able to make models quickly, some printed overnight for surgery the next day, making this technology available even for urgent surgical cases.
Jenny: What inspired you to start your journey in 3D printing?
Albert: As with most things in life, it was pure luck. As I began my career, I inherited a 3D imaging lab started by Dr. Jeffrey Marsh, who is credited (along with Dr. Michael Vannier) with having developed the technology for 3D modeling of 2D CT scans. As we pursued this work, I happened to meet a bioengineer who was interested in 3D printing. Honestly, I hadn’t thought much about printing until then but it was a natural leap in our research. We decided to submit a joint grant proposal for a professional-grade 3D printer, which got me started on the exciting path of looking at the use of 3D printing in medical care.
Jenny: Who inspired you the most along this journey in 3D printing?
Albert: Really, it is a number of people. I cannot laud the work of Dr. Jeffrey Marsh enough, who was a pioneer in the field of 3D craniofacial imaging. I would like the opportunity to carry on some of his work to stand on the shoulders of giants. Beyond this, I have to give credit to my friend and colleague in pediatric cardiology, Dr. Shafkat Anwar. Until we had met, I largely focused on pursuing my own clinical interests in 3D printing and craniofacial imaging. However, he helped to really widen my horizons, pushing me out of my silo to start really examining what 3D printing can do in the field of medicine overall.
Jenny: What motivates you the most for your work?
Albert: This answer is easy. I love what I do and I have fun doing it. It’s even made more special when you realize that the work being performed has direct implications for patient care. Not only is some of the modeling that we do is “cool,” but it has s real impact on people’s lives. What can be better?
Jenny: What is/are the biggest obstacle(s) in your line of work? If you have conquered them, what were your solutions?
Albert: One of the greatest obstacles is simply obtaining the support to do the work that we do in 3D printing. Printers, materials, software, lab space, employees, time, and training all require funding and support. Unfortunately, the value of this technology isn’t always readily apparent to the folks who focus on the financial statements. To help, it has been critical to obtaining buy-in from other clinicians who have benefited from our 3D models. It has also been useful to sit down with administrators to demonstrate the direct impact that our work has on the care of patients in the hospital.
Jenny: What do you think is (are) the biggest challenge(s) in 3D Printing? What do you think the potential solution(s) is (are)?
Albert: 3D printing in medicine is still a fairly nascent industry and it seems like we are constantly pushing the boundaries of what our software or machines are capable of doing. One of the most notable issues is the disconnect between software and hardware. While CAD-CAM technologies are readily available in manufacturing, the medical domain seems to have far fewer options for high-level modeling of DICOM data, particularly if you are utilizing multiple colors and texture maps. I’m sure that these will come with time but there is still a long way to go before medical 3D printing is truly “plug and play.”
Jenny: If you are granted three wishes by a higher being, what would they be?
Albert: If I could only add another few hours each day and extra days to the week, my life would be perfect! Beyond this, I would love to know everything about 3D modeling and be able to easily impart this knowledge to the world. I think venues like 3DHeals are an excellent avenue to begin an open dialogue so that we can all learn from each other, sharing ideas and techniques, thereby advancing the field of 3D printing in medicine as a whole.
Jenny: What advice would you give to a smart driven college student in the “real world”? What bad advice you heard should they ignore?
Albert: Learn everything you can and don’t limit your fund of knowledge. Explore your creative and artistic sides at the same time that you look into science and technology. I see 3D printing as a canvas to draw upon. The masters will not only have the fundamental skills to use the printer but also the imagination to draw out the best from the technology. Most importantly, don’t get disappointed with failure, and don’t give up.
Jenny: If you could have a giant billboard to promote a message to millions and even billions of people in our community (i.e. healthcare 3D printing and bio-fabrication), what message would that be?
Albert: Collaborate and open your minds. And leave your egos at the door.
Jenny: What were/was the best/worst investment you made in 3D printing?
Albert: I had to learn that I couldn’t do all of this on my own. So really the best thing I did was to hire our 3D coordinator to manage the specifics of the program. As a corollary, the worst thing was to try to do it all myself. This simply led to confusion, delays, and aggravation.
Jenny: What was/is the biggest risk you took in your career?
Albert: I had a great practice at Washington University in St. Louis with a burgeoning 3D program that was just taking off. It was difficult to decide to move to my alma mater, Brown University/Rhode Island Hospital, and start all over again — building a new program from scratch. But it was the right thing to do and I have never regretted that decision.
Jenny: What do you enjoy in your spare time? What are you passionate about outside of your work/3d printing?
Albert: Family comes first. So I do my best to spend as much time with the family as possible.
Jenny: What is your favorite quote? Why?
Albert: “Chance favors the prepared mind.” – Louis Pasteur
Insight and game-changing developments just don’t happen. They are the result of preparation, thought, and previous effort. Even when random opportunities present themselves, some will be better prepared to take advantage of fortuitous events.
Jenny: What does the word “3DHEALS” mean to you? =)
Albert: 3D printing (and additive manufacturing as a whole) has incredible potential to change the world. We would love to use this new technology to improve healthcare overall.