Carnegie Mellon University
August 26, 2019

Exoskeleton Research Takes Steps Forward, Thanks To Personal Connection

By Michael Henninger

Emily Durham
  • College of Engineering
  • 1-412-268-2406
John Mangual grew up watching his mother limp. Amy Mangual had broken her leg, and lived with ligament and tendon problems that lead to chronic ankle instability.

Mangual was exposed to all kinds of braces that doctors provided her to help the problem. At the time, he never imagined he might someday be creating his own.

After a high school visit to Carnegie Mellon University, Mangual applied for early decision in the College of Engineering. He saw himself working in the medical field like his parents, who went into nursing. CMU's biomedical engineering program, which is designed as an additional major to one of the traditional engineering disciplines, felt like the perfect fit for Mangual. He also is studying mechanical engineering.

The summer after his first year at CMU, he sat with his parents around the dinner table in upstate New York discussing his mother potentially having ligament reconstruction surgery when his father suggested researching his mother's condition as part of his college career.

Mangual did a literary review on papers relevant to ankle structures and unpowered exoskeletons for a biomedical engineering lab class. That led to a research apprenticeship under teaching professor Conrad Zapanta and a non-functioning prototype of an unpowered exoskeleton designed to improve the recovery process for patients rehabilitating from foot and ankle surgeries, specifically surgeries that result in a non-weight-bearing period.

"While someone's in a cast, their muscles atrophy," Mangual said. "After they get the cast removed, they're put into a medical boot. I see a gap in their recovery process right there. A lot of people have problems with the boot. If we can make something more biocompatible that offers support for someone out of surgery but also exercises the muscle groups in that area, I think that would be a better way to do it."

This summer, Mangual received a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship to pursue his unpowered exoskeleton research. The grants are provided by the Undergraduate Research Office at CMU and Mangual's was one of 96 provided this year. He made progress, and is ready to print a 3D prototype at scale once he finds a printer large enough to accommodate his concept.

And, while his mother's ankle is doing much better, Mangual hopes his research may eventually help others.

"I'm not claiming to have a perfect design," Mangual said. "But I think I've proved that within this field, there is a gap in the recovery process that should be addressed. That could save companies money, and make recoveries easier for a lot of people. If you consider all the patients that go through these surgeries, it amounts to 1.5 million Americans each year. This could potentially help that many people."

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