Stories#068 Sarthak’s robotics lab

#068 Sarthak’s robotics lab

The story of Chantal’s campus castle is a story of Sarthak’s robotics lab

Professor Sarthak Misra has a passion for robots, a preference for research and cannot live without running. And, as manager Facility Services Chantal Hilgeholt soon discovers, there’s much more that interests him. She, always interested in what UT staff needs in order to work and learn well, sums it all up with him in less than an hour.

Click for Dutch version

Monday 7 march 2022 

Robots and running

Chantal: ‘Sarthak, how nice to meet you. You’ve been living and working in the Netherlands for over ten years, but we can call you a man of the world.’ 

Sarthak: ‘I call myself a nomad. I was born in India, studied and worked in the US and Canada and came to the Netherlands in 2009. I feel at home in all those places, but my hometown has been Groningen for quite some time now. Aside from UT, I am affiliated with the University Medical Center Groningen.’ 

Chantal: ‘So you ended up picking another town over Enschede to live in, but what do you appreciate about UT?’ 

Sarthak: ‘When I came to UT, I was new to all the people here and they were new to me. Yet I immediately felt part of the UT family. I experience a lot of time, space, support, and encouragement to achieve my professional goals. I appreciate that. Another thing I really like is running in the woods around campus. I run about 10 kilometres every day, usually at the end of my working day, before getting back in the car to Groningen.’ 

Chantal: ‘It’s great that you make time for that every day in your – presumably full – agenda, because you teach and do a lot of research. Do you prefer one over the other?’ 

Sarthak: ‘Running is good for my body and mind. And teaching helps me to stay focused. Even though I’ve been teaching a subject for maybe ten or twelve years, there’s always a student who asks me a question that I haven’t thought about that way before. I also really enjoy making students, who are first getting acquainted with the material, curious about my work in the lab. Still, research is my greatest love. Developing innovative surgical robots that can contribute to better, smarter healthcare is a wonderful challenge.’

Chantal: ‘Can you tell me how Campus & Facility Management can contribute to your work? That is, if you have a picture of all that we do. I realise that not everyone does.’ 

Sarthak: ‘I know that my labs wouldn’t be operational without your services. No matter how good my idea is, without the necessary space and resources, nothing will come of it. I really appreciate all that you do. Not only in facilitating the labs, by the way. When I look at the furnishing of the campus and see how neat and picturesque everything is, … that isn’t done by gnomes, right?’ 

‘What we can use your support for, is in creating more lab space. I know that the available space is limited, but I’m sure that we can come up with some smart solutions together. Isn’t the basement of De Horst empty? We could, for example, store and archive unused items there. Besides, the lab facilities in De Horst are somewhat dated. For example, there was no pipeline for compressed air yet. It’s recently been installed, but more as a temporary solution than a structural one. I feel that such ad hoc solutions cost a lot of time and money. I think it would be more efficient and economical to make the decision: from now on this will be lab space and we’re going to make sure it’s perfect.’ 

Chantal: ‘We aren’t in charge of everything, but it’s good to get an idea of the needs. You know what you need, we know what’s possible. Let’s talk about this more some other time. Right now, what I’d really like to know is: what would you do if you were to take over for me for a day?’ 

Sarthak: ‘Oh dear … I think you spend a lot of time on crisis management and putting out fires. And that you make a lot of people happy, but also receive a lot of complaint emails. How about you give me a summary of what you do, and then I’ll choose something from that.’ 

Chantal: ‘On behalf of our department, I am the contact person for all faculties and services, head of Internal Service, security, mail, logistics and events & booking office. I’m responsible for European tenders for things like cleaning, waste, catering, and coffee and in the past two corona years, together with LISA, we’ve been helping to make online lectures possible, and we’ve been maintaining the buildings, among other things. And yes, we usually receive more criticism than compliments. We have a place of honour on our bulletin board for the positive messages, haha.’ 

Sarthak: ‘And rightly so! But, uh, hearing all this, I really think it’s better that I don’t take over any of your work. It seems incredibly complicated to me; I don’t think I’m qualified for it.’

Chantal: ‘Says the man who develops robots that can’t be seen with the naked eye. Can you tell me more about what the robots in your lab do and can do?’ 

Sarthak: ‘Back to familiar territory, I like that. Indeed, in our labs we build both very large as well as microscopic robots. Both kinds can perform very precise surgical procedures within the body. For the tiny ones, it’s a little harder to imagine what they do and can do right now. But I do think these micro-robots are the future of surgery, Howerver, those large robots very much appeal to the imagination. We develop them for procedures in the abdominal area, the cardiovascular system, the brain, and the prostate – are a few examples. Students work with it almost every day in our labs. They program the robots and conduct various experiments with them. That way we learn what works and what doesn’t, and we can keep perfecting them until hopefully they can actually be used in hospital operating rooms in the not-so-distant future.’ 

Chantal: ‘You strike me as an ambitious, enthusiastic, energetic person. What if a day had 48 hours? What else would you like to do then?’ 

Sarthak: ‘I’d for sure run twice as often. And I’d also take up one or two other sports. I’d learn to play an instrument and take more time to read. And if it still fits, I’d go to medical school. I considered doing that when I was 18 but was held back by how long it takes to be a doctor. Meanwhile, I’ve probably spent just as much time on my teaching and research trajectory to be an academic. And further, … My father was a professor at a business school. I used to not find that very interesting, but being surrounded by all these great start-ups, innovative entrepreneurship has sparked my interest. This list should certainly include my passion for space robots. In the US and Canada, I worked for the International Space Station Program and helped develop many robots that are now in orbit. I always look up, want to get involved again someday.’

Chantal: ‘What a list!’ 

Sarthak: ‘Indeed, maybe I should consider living on Venus – they have long days there! Even though I can't live up to everything, it enriches my life to think, read, talk and learn about all these interests. The only limitation is my imagination.’ 

Chantal: ‘Words to live by. I’ll remember it!’

Chantal Hilgeholt (45)

is manager Facility Services and acting director of Campus Facility Management. Chantal has been working at UT since 2003. First as a facilities contract manager, later as a facility account manager and facility services manager. Over the past two years, she’s played an important role in making the campus 'corona-proof'.

After her MEAO education, Chantal studied Facility Management and followed a post-graduate course in Business Administration and a Business Administration course. Before coming to UT, Chantal was a contract manager at Stork, a manufacturer of industrial and electrical installations and automation systems.

Sarthak Misra (45)

is a professor in the Department of Biomechanical Engineering and heads the Surgical Robotics Lab (SRL) at UT. He is broadly interested in the design, modelling, and control of micro- and macro-electromechanical systems with applications in medical robotics. Sarthak is also a professor at the University of Groningen and University Medical Center Groningen. Before coming to the Netherlands in 2009, he studied Mechanical Engineering at McGill University in Montreal and obtained his PhD at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore (USA). Prior to commencing his doctoral studies, he spent three years as a dynamics and control analyst on the International Space Station Program in Houston (USA) and Montreal (Canada). In the Netherlands, he has since obtained several major research grants, including a Veni and Vidi grants from NWO, and ERC Starting, Consolidator, and Proof-of-Concept grants.