Rick Redett performs surgery in Peru, 2010. Photo by Eric Salsbery

Yes, you read that right — pediatric plastic surgeon. But don’t make the dumb assumption that I did when I first met Dr. Rick Redett. He’s not doing nose jobs on preteens. He’s expertly repairing cleft lips and palates, doing skin grafts and addressing nerve injuries at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center. And this is pediatrics, so he’s working with teeny-tiny parts — little hands and noses and even nerves in these little bodies. One measurement that’s even a little bit off can mean a very big problem.

It’s no wonder that Dr. Redett uses lots of math in his work — from conversions to measurements to basic geometry. On top of that, he helped found Bring Hope Through Healing, a non-profit that helps fund surgical trips to South and Central America, so that children (and even a few adults) with cleft palates and lips can get restorative surgery. But in terms of his everyday job? Here’s how he uses math.

Can you explain what you do for a living? I am a pediatric plastic surgeon, caring for children with cleft lip and palate, nerve injuries, congenital and traumatic hand problems and burns.

When do you use basic math in your job?  Most of the medicines we give children are weight based, which means we give a specific amount of medicine calculated using the weight of the baby. Giving too little or too much medicine may be harmful. I also use math during surgery. When a baby is born with a cleft lip, one of the nostrils is much bigger than the other. To determine how much smaller I need to make the bigger nostril, I use device which measure the diameter of each nostril. Multiplying the difference in diameter of the nostrils by 3 (approximately π) will equal the amount of tissue which needs to be removed from the bigger nostril to make it the size of the smaller nostril.

Notice how the nostril on the left is larger than the one of the right. Rick uses the formula for the circumference of a circle to help him even out the nostrils along with repairing the cleft lip.

Do you use any technology to help with this math? I use an app on my iPhone when calculating medication doses in children

How do you think math helps you do your job better?  I couldn’t do my job without math.

How comfortable with math do you feel?  I enjoyed math in school and am comfortable using it at work. Most of the math I use at work is relatively simple but necessary to practice medicine safely.

What kind of math did you take in high school? Math was one of my favorite classes in high school. I especially liked trigonometry

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job? I didn’t have to learn anything new, but I have had to review things that I didn’t know I’d need. When I was learning how to make the nostrils symmetric during cleft lip surgery, I had to look up the formula for the circumference of a circle (C = dπ, where C is circumference, d is diameter and π can be rounded 3.14).

Did you think that the formula for the circumference would ever be useful? I was surprised. Oh, and parents, next time your little one is at the doctor or (god forbid) needs surgery, be glad that the doctor took math! If you have questions for Dr. Redett, post them here. I’ll let him know about them and get answers for you.