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Roswell Park Cancer Institute is well-known in the Buffalo area. In 2004, Roswell became the first facility in the Buffalo-Niagara region to offer state-of-the-art robotic surgical technology to patients with prostate cancer. Now it is one of the fastest advancing areas in health care in the area. Surgical teams from around the world come to improve and build their skills under the direction of experts at Roswell Park.

Roswell Park’s Center for Robotic Surgery recently invited Western New York high school students to participate in the first Junior Robotic Surgeon Challenge, which culminated Saturday in a head-to-head competition among the finalists. In the program, students used the hospital’s Robotic Surgical Simulator, also known as RoSS, to learn and build surgical skills, and attended discussion groups about medicine, technology and surgery. The competition ended in a tie between Taylor Goodman, of Hamburg High School, and Alex Tryjankowski, of Clarence High School.

The program was designed by Dr. Khurshid Guru, director of Roswell’s Robotic Surgery Center, and Eileen O’Brien, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) coordinator for Immaculate Conception School in East Aurora. It was organized by Erinn Field, program coordinator for the cancer hospital’s Applied Technology Laboratory for Advanced Surgery.

“The surgeries performed by our two finalists were outstanding,” said Guru. “Among all our participants, I could tell I was looking at the future surgeons and engineers of Western New York and beyond.”

Sixty-seven students from nine public and private high schools attended five training sessions on Saturdays leading up to the final showdown. The schools represented in the program are St. Francis, Nardin, Williamsville East, Mount Mercy, Clarence, Mount St. Mary, Hamburg, Sacred Heart and East Aurora.

“Each Saturday we arrive at Roswell roughly around quarter to eight. We then make our way to the room where our classroom session is held,” said participant Francesca Gugino, a sophomore at Mount St. Mary Academy. “During this portion of the program we discuss techniques of surgery with the robot, use of the robot in surgery and its other applications in the medical field. We have workbooks that we take notes in each week throughout the classroom session. Following this part of the day, we enter the lab. In the lab we use a version of the robot to train with … Also in the lab we have learned to tie surgical knots with the arms of the robot, practiced several techniques to ensure efficient performance, and we have even used the “practice robot” to go through simulated surgeries.”

Students were trained to use the same equipment that is used in surgeries at Roswell Park.

“When you are able to use the machines, you learn how it works, and how complex and fascinating they are,” said Stephanie Zawadzki, a student at Nardin Academy. “The machines allow you to see how you have to operate them, what a doctor must do on a daily basis.”

The students who took part in the program raved about it.

“I love this program and sincerely believe that the robotics program is one of the greatest opportunities I have had to expand my horizons in the medical field,” said Griffin Sullivan, a student from East Aurora High School. “Every aspect of the program is well done, and at the end being presented with a prestigious certificate of completion is truly amazing.”

Edmund Falkowski, a student from St. Francis High School, agreed.

“The experience of working with the machines and the esteemed professionals will be the greatest takeaway from this program,” he said.

The weeks of training led to the final competitions, which started with two representatives from each school proving their skills on dueling simulators; the semifinals, which had students show their knowledge and try to convince the judges who wants to be a robotic surgeon; and the finals, where the students displayed their overall ability by performing an actual robot-assisted surgery on a synthetic bladder. The finals were judged by surgeons from Roswell Park.

Libby Bassani, of Hamburg High School, said, “I believe no matter what I pursue in college, this knowledge will not be invaluable. I will not only be able to understand the mechanics of surgery, but I will be a more educated patient.”

Rebecca Brandel is a sophomore at Mount St. Mary Academy.

“I love this program and sincerely believe that the robotics program is one of the greatest opportunities I have had to expand my horizons in the medical field.” – Griffin Sullivan, East Aurora High School