Engineering in Real Life

Engineering in Real Life

Words by Sonia Fernandez, Shelly Leachman, James Badham and Andrew Masuda

Photos by Matt Perko and Nick Dentamaro

What nobler endeavor is there than to help others? UCSB researchers past and present continue in that tradition, leveraging their skills, creativity and collaboration into inventions that can help millions of people living with medical and physiological conditions live fuller, more independent lives.

These researchers — those featured here are only a small selection — combine an ambition to address longstanding and widespread health and wellness challenges, like blindness or mobility issues, with a focus on practical, technological solutions. Consider psychology and brain sciences assistant professor Michael Beyeler’s smart bionic eye that incorporates AI to give those with incurable blindness some vision. Or mechanical engineering associate professors Tyler Susko and Elliot Hawkes’s “variable friction shoe,” built to help people with foot drop walk more securely.

Other inventions can prevent medical errors that in addition to needlessly harming patients can cost billions of dollars per year. Former chemical engineering professor and associate dean of research Frank Doyle’s algorithm for an artificial pancreas enables the device to sense blood sugar levels in real time and deliver the appropriate dosage of insulin. Meanwhile, biomolecular science and engineering doctoral researchers William Fisher and Aria Ghasemizadeh are developing a device that uses light for precision drug delivery.

The benefits are many in this line of work. Not only do these researchers deploy their expertise and follow their curiosity and creativity to advance their fields, they also solve real problems. It’s a combination that underlies the career of electrical and computer engineering alum Rory Cooper, who was recently recognized for his work in wheelchair technology by the National Inventors Hall of Fame. At the end of the day and for all the hard work, the true reward is improving the lives of others.

Aria Ghasemizadeh & Willus Fisher

 THE DRUG DOSING AND MONITORING PLATFORM use light to control the concentration and release of the drug into the bloodstream.

A safer drug delivery platform

Errors in drug administration is a problem that takes the lives of 9,000 people in the U.S., injures 1.3 million more and costs the healthcare industry $40 billion each year. Doctoral students Willus Fisher and Aria Ghasemizadeh aim to address this issue with a device that noninvasively enables accurate dosing and precise drug release. The technology, which earned second place in the Technology Push category of UCSB’s 2023 New Venture Competition, can not only make drug administration safer, but could also make it more convenient, allowing patients to go from multi-hour infusions at the clinic to one shot or pill at home.

Tyler Susko & Elliot Hawkes

 THE SOLE OF THE SHOE contains both high-friction and low-friction components and is the key to its stability.

A variable friction shoe

A common side effect of a stroke is “foot drop,” an inability to walk without scuffing the ground that often leads to trips and falls. It can also result from spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy, Parkinson’s disease and weakness due to advancing age, among other causes. Mechanical engineers Tyler Susko and Elliot Hawkes have partnered to develop a custom rehabilitative shoe, Cadense, that alleviates foot drop. The shoe, which features both high- and low-friction components, provides constant stability to aid in stroke recovery and ameliorates walking disabilities from a whole host of other conditions. In 2022, a beta test showed that many people were finding it easier to walk normally, and faster, with the shoe serving as an assistive device. A clinical trial is next. Meanwhile, the shoe is in production; more than 2,000 pairs were delivered in spring 2024.

Michael Beyeler

 USING VIRTUAL REALITY, an AI module for future visual prostheses creates practical and useful artificial vision.

A smart bionic eye

There are some 6 million people worldwide living with profound blindness. Some of them use visual prostheses, which are meant to replace lost functionality with an implant. Yet the vision these devices currently provide is limited; blind users are able to see something, but they don’t know what it is they’re looking at. Now, by integrating artificial intelligence and object recognition technology into visual prostheses, computer scientist Michael Beyeler is working to advance the capabilities of these bionic eyes. In the future, AI-powered visual augmentations could be combined with GPS to give directions, warn users of impending dangers in their immediate surroundings, or even extend the range of visible light with the use of an infrared sensor.

Rory Cooper

 CAMBERED WHEELS ensure the plane of the wheelchair is closer to the shoulders, putting less strain on the upper body when propelling the chair.

A superior wheelchair

The first wheelchair that biomedical engineer Rory Cooper Ph.D. ’89 designed, an ultralight model, was for himself, after a bike accident left him paralyzed. Then he set out to help others, and ultimately revolutionized wheelchair technology. His many innovations — including an ergonomic pushrim, an algorithmic digital joystick and robotic arms — have substantially improved both manual and electric wheelchairs and benefited the health, mobility and inclusion of people with disabilities and older adults. In 2023, Cooper was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and awarded a National Medal of Technology and Innovation. In 2024, he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering. He is founder and director of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories at the University of Pittsburgh.

Frank Doyle

 THE CONTROL ALGORITHM for the artificial pancreas couples real-time sensing of the wearer’s blood sugar with the appropriate dosage of insulin.

An artificial pancreas

Keeping their blood glucose levels in a safe range is a major challenge for people with Type 1 diabetes. It requires checking their levels several times a day, and timing and adjusting their insulin doses, which need to account for things such as activity, timing of meals, carbohydrate content of meals and illness. Complicating matters further, there’s a small margin for error. Too little insulin could lead to diabetic ketoacidosis, while too much can cause hypoglycemia. At UCSB, an algorithm was developed by former chemical engineering professor (now Brown University provost) Frank Doyle. Created for an artificial pancreas, the algorithm minimizes the guesswork and lowers the barrier to consistent and accurate insulin therapy, giving diabetes patients peace of mind.

Spring / Summer 2024


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