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In the spotlight: Biomedical engineer George Stetten

Monday, July 22, 2002

By Byron Spice, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

George Stetten: media darling? A self-effacing, somewhat shaggy denizen of the laboratory, Stetten hardly seems to fit the part. But his invention, the sonic flashlight, has attracted enough news media attention that the Whitaker Foundation considers him something of an expert in dealing with limelight.

The foundation, which sponsors biomedical engineering research, helped give Stetten whatever fame he enjoys today when it issued a press release about the sonic flashlight last December and featured it on the foundation's Web page.

What followed were a number of short stories and illustrations that appeared in magazines such as Discover, Popular Science and, to Stetten's mild embarrassment, Men's Health, the monthly known for its beefcake covers.

At one point, the device was featured on Slashdot -- http://slashdot.org -- a "News for Nerds" Web site that is popular with tech enthusiasts. A link to Stetten's own Web page -- www.stetten.com --attracted 13,000 hits and promptly crashed.

So Stetten, who received some financial support from the foundation in the mid-90s, has been asked to speak at the Whitaker's annual meeting next month in San Diego, part of a panel on media coverage. Frank Blanchard, the foundation's communications director, said researchers tend to fall at opposite ends of the publicity scale -- those who labor for years in anonymity and those who get instant recognition that brings financial success.

"George is kind of in the middle," Blanchard said. He's received a modicum of national attention, though he's hardly become an overnight sensation. But his experience in dealing with publicity -- including the response of fellow researchers -- should be instructive for others.

"Plus, the stuff that he's done, the sonic flashlight, is really sort of a snazzy device," he added.

Stetten said he hasn't experienced any jealousy from colleagues or other problems stemming from what he calls "an inordinate amount of press." He hasn't reaped any huge rewards, however. Many people, government agencies and manufacturers have expressed interest, but haven't ponied up any money.

Though the sonic flashlight may make certain procedures easier for the physician and safer for the patient, Stetten has found that many manufacturers hesitate to invest in a new device unless it is an "enabling" technology -- something that allows doctors to do a procedure that previously was impossible.

Several proposals for grants and other funding are pending, however, and Stetten remains optimistic. And he admits that the publicity seems to have opened some doors, including those of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

"I got a call from them one day," Stetten recalled. "They said, 'I read about you in Men's Health!' "

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