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June 13, 2014

Crossing Boundaries To Transform Lives

Interdisciplinary Teams Provide Intriguing Solutions to Medical Problems

This past spring, students in the two-
semester Biomedical Engineering 
Design course presented innovative solutions to pressing medical problems.

The course brought together students from diverse backgrounds to develop solutions from concept all the way to prototype.

“Engineering, design and humanities students have pedagogies and skill sets that are significantly different from each other,” said Conrad Zapanta, associate head of CMU’s Department of Biomedical Engineering.

Graduates of biomedical engineering pursue careers in many biological and medical fields, including biotechnology, medical device, pharmaceuticals and health care policy.

“Some go to graduate school and medical school to pursue advanced degrees,” Zapanta said.

Fifteen teams developed projects, ranging from developing sterilizers for low-resource areas to a brace for rehabilitating Achilles tendon injuries. Some past projects from the course have been developed further and are currently being used clinically.

Some of this year’s projects were:

Grip It Good

Grip It Good teamMillions of Americans suffer from disability due to diseases such as diabetic neuropathy, arthritis or stroke. The goal of the Grip It Good project team was 
to help occupational therapists more accurately assess their patients and improve treatments.

“Currently a hand dynamometer is used for these purposes, but it doesn’t incorporate a very natural, gripping-type motion,” said Ethan Ungchusri (E’14), who joined forces with Luke Auyeung (E’14), Cheryl Deng (E’14), Nathan Hahn (DC’14), Tomas Dardet (E’14) and Ting Xu (E’14).

“We believed that by using something familiar like a soda can and putting four sensors inside, patients could interact with the measuring device in a more natural way,” Ungchusri said.

Here’s how it works: The patient is first asked to grab the can, hold it for 10 seconds and release it. Then, the patient is asked to grab the can as hard as he or she can for 10 seconds. A two-week treatment follows.

“At the end of the two-week treatment, the patients are asked to grab the can again, hold it for 10 seconds, release and then grab the can hard, just as they had prior to treatment,” Dardet said. 
“A doctor can then compare the results from the two sessions to see if the patient’s grip strength actually improved.”


PeopleProp teamChava Angell (E’14), Felix Chiu (E’14), Keith Joseph (A’15), Liana Kong (A’15) and Victoria Patino (E’14) developed the PeopleProp brace to support patients with neuromuscular disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease.

“We designed the brace to alleviate some of the symptoms of postural instability associated with the disease,” Angell said.

“Parkinson’s patients tend to slump over, and that can cause difficulties in breathing,” Angell added. “As you can see, our brace pulls back the shoulders, providing a lot more support. It’s very lightweight and comfortable.”

Many braces on the market are rigid and limit the range of motion. This team’s solution is made of spandex, Velcro and a cotton blend.

“Also, our brace is unobtrusive. 
A patient can wear this under clothing, taking away the stigma associated with wearing this kind of corrective piece in public,” Angell said.

Football Informatic 
Technology (FIT)

FIT teamConcussions are a major concern 
in contact sports today, particularly American football.

“Although the symptoms of 
sports-related concussions are generally considered minor and transient, recent research has suggested that an extensive history of sport-related head injury may result in the enhanced onset of neurodegeneration,” said Roma Luthra (E’14), a fifth-year senior whose team took on the challenge of helmet safety. “With the potential for such significant negative consequences associated with head trauma, the sport of football has recently come under great scrutiny.”

Luthra and her teammates — Robert Winkelman (E’14), Catherine Rudnick (E’14) and Tejank Shah (E’14) — designed a pressure sensor cap that could potentially prevent concussions.

“There are air bladders inside the helmet that can be adjusted using a pump,” said Winkelman, who played on CMU’s Tartan football team. “But how they’re fitted today is that a coach will come up to a player typically at the beginning of the season, have the player don the helmet, and as the player is wearing it, the coach will ask ‘How does it feel?’ And they’ll just add air to adjust the player’s comfort level.”

The air pressure in the helmet is subject to change as the season progresses — affected by seasonal temperatures, for example — and follow-up fittings are not required. The cap uses a software interface to collect quantitative data using four sensing resistors inside the helmet to record the initial fit.

“That fit can be saved and used in follow-up fittings later in the season to make sure every time the player takes the field, the helmet is fitting as good as it was on day one,” Winkelman said.

“Our cap was pretty inexpensive to build, too,” he added. “One cap would suffice for an entire team of football players. And it would only cost the team about $100.”

By: Kelly Solman,

Top Photo: From left, Nathan Hahn (DC’14), Cheryl Deng (E’14), Tomas Dardet (E’14) Ethan Ungchusri (E’14), Ting Xu (E’14) and Luke Auyeung (E’14) use sensors in soda cans to help occupational therapists assess patients’ grips.

Middle Photo: Felix Chiu (E’14), Liana Kong (A’15), Victoria Patino (E’14), Chava Angell (E’14) and Keith Joseph (A’15) 
developed the PeopleProp brace to support patients 
with neuromuscular disorders.

Bottom Photo: Catherine Rudnick (E’14), Robert Winkelman (E’14), Roma Luthra (E’14) and Tejank Shah (E’14) designed a pressure sensor cap to help coaches keep football helmets properly fitted throughout the season.