Engineering a Helping Hand
Jamie Ferris ’19 doesn’t let many opportunities pass her by. As a Presidential Scholarship recipient, the honors program senior is double majoring in mechanical engineering and philosophy. She also runs cross country and track, participated on SCU’s Ethics Bowl team, worked on SCU’s winning Tiny House Competition team, is president of the student chapter of the mechanical engineering honor society Pi Tau Sigma and vice president of the engineering honors society Tau Beta Pi, and has spent two summers helping advance faculty research through the Kuehler Undergraduate Research program.
Following her sophomore year, Jamie stayed on campus assisting Associate Professor Panthea Sepehrband in investigating how ultrasonic bonding occurs at the atomic level. “I loved working with Dr. Sepehrband. She gave me room to grow and to learn how to research independently, and guide my own thoughts,” she said. Some of those thoughts led to the realization that she would rather be working in robotics, so she reached out to Christopher Kitts, director of the Robotics Systems Laboratory (RSL) and professor of mechanical engineering. “He asked what I wanted to be involved in, and I off-handedly mentioned it had been my dream since high school to do something in prostheses. Turns out, he’d just had a meeting with a potential partner to design a prosthetic hand, and he said I’d be perfect to work on it. I was trying not to freak out, but I was so excited.”
Working in a partnership with the Jaipur Foot Foundation (a non-profit providing free prostheses in India, Asia, Africa, and Latin America), Jamie and other undergraduate and graduate students from bioengineering, biology, mechanical engineering, and public health sciences are developing the HELP Hand, a Human-centered Electric Prosthetic, to be produced in India. “It’s been a journey figuring out exactly who our target user would be,” she noted, “but we decided to focus on urban blue- or white-collar workers in India, as this is a large population best suited to the sort of electric device requested by Jaipur Foot.” Furthermore, the device is being designed for use on the non-dominant hand. Jamie explained that after amputation, dominance of the hand switches within three to four months. “In India, many have lived with amputation for years before being fitted with a prosthesis, so the device we’re designing will perform a supporting, rather than dominant, role.” The undergraduates are working on a pulley tendon system as their senior design project (advised by Kitts and Prashanth Asuri, bioengineering associate professor and BioInnovation and Design Lab director); the graduate group is tackling a gear-based transmission.
The technical design of the prosthesis is just one part of the project, Jamie said. “We have to take into account what will work best with the Foundation’s process in India, what charging options are available, what will be accepted aesthetically by both prosthetists and users, and we have to be sure we are fitting the needs of our customer base.” To ensure they are staying focused, the engineers regularly check in with their teammates from public health sciences, asking them to question and double-check decisions being made along the way.
“This is a multi-year project," she says. "At the end of this year, we hope to have a functional prototype that can be refined by the next group, evolving into a great product that can ultimately be manufactured in India. The Jaipur Foot Foundation envisions this prosthesis as creating an industry, providing jobs and helping more than just those receiving the prostheses. We have the possibility to have deep, long-lasting impact if we do a good job on our project.”
Following graduation, Jamie will continue prostheses research; she has already been accepted into one Ph.D. program and is awaiting notification from others. “Santa Clara has been such a great fit for me, but without the funding I received, I would not have been able to come here. I’m so grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to pursue my interests in engineering, philosophy, and athletics. At a Jesuit institution, it’s all about furthering education and bringing people together to build knowledge. Being here has helped me become a better person.”
Jan 22, 2019
Jamie Ferris '19 at work on the HELP Hand