Alfonso Dehesa Baeza and Milan Toma, Ph.D.


Simulating Pediatric Head Trauma

April 20, 2020

Pictured: Mechanical engineering student Alfonso Dehesa and Assistant Professor Milan Toma, Ph.D.

When third-year mechanical engineering student Alfonso Dehesa Baeza learned that Assistant Professor Milan Toma, Ph.D., was studying the fluid dynamics of pediatric head trauma, he saw his chance to make a difference.

“What most excited me about this project was knowing that what I was doing was actually going to make an impact in the real world,” says Dehesa Baeza, who is enrolled in the accelerated master's program. “Working on this project allows me to give back to my community on a whole new level, potentially saving the life of infants worldwide, which keeps me motivated and excited.”

Abusive head trauma (AHT), commonly known as shaken baby syndrome, is the leading cause of fatal brain injuries in children under two. During head injury, the cerebrospinal fluid, found in the central cavities and space surrounding the brain and spinal cord, cushions the brain and protects it from hitting the skull. However, one in four shaken babies dies and 80 percent of survivors suffer permanent brain damage. While children can suffer permanent neurological damage, developmental delay, and disability, the long-term effects of AHT are difficult to diagnose and predict.

Toma and Dehesa Baeza, whose research has been published in Pediatric Neurology, have developed computational simulations to help clinicians and caregivers better understand the impact of these injuries. Dehesa Baeza recently sat down with The Box to discuss his involvement in the study and shared his advice to other New York Tech students looking to partner with faculty mentors.

How did you become involved in this research?
Over the semester, Dr. Toma presented multiple research opportunities to the class. I happened to share his enthusiasm for his research and, upon reading more of his work, saw a lot of meaning and purpose in applying computational methods in the medical field. As such, I expressed my interest and ended up taking on multiple projects with Dr. Toma, one of them being this publication.

Were you surprised by these findings?
It’s common sense that nothing good can come from violently shaking a newborn, even if, at least in the caregiver’s perspective, it might solve an immediate problem. What was really surprising, was the magnitude of such an effect as well as the mechanism of how it works. I believe if caregivers were made aware of the actual impact of such practice it would definitely reduce, and hopefully eliminate, cases of shaken baby syndrome throughout the globe.

What inspired you to pursue a mechanical engineering education? 
I would be lying if I said that Iron Man had nothing to do with my introduction to the field. Ever since I was a little kid, I knew my area of study was going to be geared towards mechanical engineering. All that tinkering, designing, troubleshooting, creating, and problem-solving attracted me like nothing else, and I was already prone to those activities even before school. To this day, I believe I made the right decision as I continue to enjoy all the courses that I take as well as all the new things that I learn.

What advice would you share with future students who are interested in getting involved with a faculty member’s research?
If you are interested in pursuing meaningful research, there are many opportunities out there. The first thing to do would be to research the professors and their fields of study to make sure you share a passion for what they’re doing. Choose a professor that delegates, sees the student’s capacity to help, and recognizes their hard work.

Also, work with a professor who publishes regularly and frequently. Check the faculty’s posters and examine the citations to their work. Then, be proactive and express your enthusiasm to them. Eventually, if they see that you are getting involved, they will help you and offer you more projects to take on. Hard work DOES pay off, and there is nothing more rewarding than working on something meaningful that you’re interested in!