Andy Garcia, MakerBrace orthotic brace for children research project

Andy Garcia
BioMechanical and BioSystems Engineering
Tandon School of Engineering

My passion for invention, innovation, and scientific inquiry has driven me to pursue research. This past year, I have worked on two research projects concerning the development of assistive medical devices. I hope to one day make my own contributions to the scientific community and through these, I aim to positively impact the lives of those who would use the devices I help create.

When choosing my first research topic, I was guided by a strong belief that everyone should have an equal opportunity in life. Of the projects listed as a part of the Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) program, I decided to join a new project at the time that focused on the creation of a low-cost, 3D-printed orthotic brace for children with cerebral palsy called the MakerBrace. I am especially concerned with making this orthotic as affordable as possible as I firmly believe everyone should have access to quality, affordable health care, and I aim to make that a reality for as many people as possible.

Securing my position on the MakerBrace team was relatively simple. Because the VIP program was a new addition to the Tandon curriculum last semester, the Mechanical Engineering advisor sent out an email to all students briefly detailing each project. When I decided on the MakerBrace project, I applied online by submitting a resume and a brief cover letter. I then sent an email to Professor Victoria Bill, who leads the project, again expressing my interest in joining. I later received an email stating that I was accepted, and I joined the team.

We realized that children who have been diagnosed with cerebral palsy often have limited access to necessary orthotic devices. Because children grow very rapidly, their orthotics must be frequently replaced. Orthotics typically cost thousands of dollars and insurance companies are unwilling to repeatedly pay for new orthotics for children as they grow. This shifts the burden of obtaining orthotics necessary for the early development of children to parents, meaning the average family is often barred from accessing such devices. The unwillingness of insurance companies to cover these costs is expensive for the parents, but it also has lasting consequences for future rehabilitative efforts. Because children with cerebral palsy often have little to no control of one arm, they will typically use their functional arm for most tasks. As the affected arm is not used throughout childhood, the neurological pathways to the arm deteriorate, delaying brain development and making future rehabilitative efforts much more difficult.

To help prevent this, we are developing a low-cost, mechanical orthotic brace that aims to assist the movement of the arm in children with cerebral palsy. The main objective of this research is to create an exoskeletal brace using additive manufacturing techniques, allowing the brace to be easily reprinted and resized using 3D-modelling software. To make the brace as affordable as possible, we keep fabrication as simple as possible and use low-cost materials to keep the total cost of construction under $50.

The brace consists of four major 3D printed components: a cuff piece that fits around the bicep of the patient, a brace that fits over the forearm of the patient, finger pieces that are used to attach fishing line from the cuff to the tips of the patient’s fingers, and a tensioning system that is attached to the cuff and is used to adjust the tension in the fishing line.

For patients with cerebral palsy, the “relaxed” position of the hand is in flexion. To assist patients as they move their fingers, tension is first applied to the fishing line so that it is taut while the arm is bent. As the arm is extended, the movement of the bicep applies a force to the fishing line, which pulls the fingers out of flexion. This allows us to translate the motion of the elbow, which our subjects can control, to the fingers, causing them to open. As the arm is bent again, tension is removed from the fishing line, and the fingers of the patient return to their “relaxed” position, allowing them to grasp objects.

Our goal was to create a functional, novel exoskeletal brace for children with cerebral palsy. After working with our second subject, we successfully designed and 3D-printed a functional brace, which improved the subject’s performance of various tasks traditionally used to judge how well they can control their arm.

I plan to continue working on this project until graduation. A provisional patent has been filed for the MakerBrace while we continue to make some small adjustments to design and functionality. We have begun clinical trials in a therapeutic setting, successfully testing on four of twelve total subjects. We are also beginning work on a paper that we hope to have submitted to a journal by this summer.

When working on the MakerBrace, it is important remind ourselves that we are working on creating a brace for real people who will one day continue to use our brace outside of a rehabilitative setting. Although we mainly focus on the design of the brace for functionality, we must also remember that these children will wear it, forcing us to make design considerations with respect to comfort, weight, and appearance. While the brace is currently robust, we are working on improving the appearance of the brace to help these children feel as normal as possible when wearing it. One of the biggest obstacles in creating this brace is the marriage of functionality and appearance.

When we complete a brace for a patient, their response is typically all that we need to make our hard work worth it. It is very heartening to see someone who has had little-to-no use in their arm begin to use it and become visibly excited as they can now grasp objects. The response from both parents and children alike is by far the most rewarding part of this project.

Our research team for the MakerBrace is multidisciplinary in every aspect of the word. The project is led by Professor Victoria Bill and Masters Student Gabriella Cammaratta from the NYU MakerSpace. We also work closely with occupational therapists Dr. Alice Chu, Dr. Renat Sukhov, and Lori Belfiore from NYU Langone’s Rusk Rehabilitation Center. The research team is also composed of students studying various disciplines, from students studying occupational therapy at Steinhardt to students studying chemical and biomolecular engineering and mechanical engineering at Tandon. All students work together to create, model and design components of the brace, while receiving feedback and input from the occupational therapists during fittings.

After graduation, I plan to continue my education and pursue research at the cross roads of mechanical engineering and medicine. I plan to complete a PhD in BioMechanical Engineering, and I may even attend medical school to study rehabilitative medicine.

Joarlyn Vasquez, Dead Man Walking research project

Joarlyn Vasquez
Biomolecular Science
Tandon School of Engineering

I stumbled upon research by networking with my professors. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to volunteer in a hospital or do research over the summer. But after class, I briefly spoke to one of my professors about the research he was doing, and he encouraged me to apply to NYU’s undergraduate research program. The Summer Undergraduate Research Program, SURP, application listed all the research, led by professors, that was taking place at NYU. Based on the research options I qualified for, I ranked my interest level and applied. I wasn’t sure if I was going to get accepted because at the time I was a freshman. I still applied in the month of February, and I got the acceptance email three months later.

The research project that I worked on over the summer is called The Dead Man Walking, led by Professor Lee. The whole idea of this project began when Professor Lee’s mentor was on her death bed and asked him to take care of her husband, a 97-year-old man in need of constant care and medical assistance. To honor his mentor’s wishes, Professor Lee hired a home attendant, but the man refused to have one. Professor Lee then proposed having cameras set around the house to watch the man, but he also refused this, stating “I don’t want people to see me naked.” The Dead Man Walking project’s goal is to create a device to monitor vital signs without being invasive; these vital signs are recorded using facial recognition. A photo is taken of an individual before and after thirty minutes of strenuous exercise. These photos are imported into Photoshop, then converted into grayscale, and pixelated to locate the superficial temporal artery in order to detect pulse rate in a non-invasive way. By knowing this information when an individual’s body temperature increases, we can use image analysis software to automatically detect the change.

My research goal was to be able to detect at least one vital sign using image analysis, and I was able to accomplish this. Since I am on the premed track, I have a strong knowledge of biology, and this helped me immensely. However, I had never taken a coding class and had to teach myself Python and Open CV in a span of ten weeks to accomplish my goals for the project. Even though I am on the Premed track, I am unsure if I want to go to medical school or go into something related to neurology or prosthetics. Having been exposed to research has made me realize that it is something I am also interested in.

Mykhal Young, Research Assistant - Testing of Novel Zirconia research project

Mykhal Young
Global Public Health - Pre-Med track
College of Arts and Science

My first experience with research was in tenth grade when I did research at the developmental genomics lab here at NYU. I was really able to immerse myself in the field of inquiry and discovery. The process of discovery is absolutely amazing to me.

My research topic, Testing of Novel Zirconia, was given to me to help me explore other types of research. Research, I learned, isn’t just exclusive to the biological sciences but also to materials science and to the social sciences.

I earned my position as a Research Assistant by going through an interview process and then meeting with my principal investigator with whom I discussed my projected research topic. In my position, I work with tooth crown materials to improve their looks and strength by exposing them to substances of varying acidity. My goal is to complete my research project in a timely and accurate fashion. I am on my way to accomplishing my goal. Progress is running smoothly, which is great considering the many time constraints we have. I would love to continue doing something in this line of research, but maybe with my own twist on it. I’m not sure I would change it up, but I’m sure it will be exciting nonetheless.

Accuracy is a huge part of being in the NYU Lab of Biomaterials. It feels like art class in the sense that there is a lot of sculpting and molding involved. Our processes are extremely time-sensitive, so if we take too long on one part after spending hours on the others, we could mess it up and have to start again from the beginning. Paying attention to every small detail and making sure everything is perfect are important skills I’ve made sure to develop to ensure everything is being done correctly. In doing so, we have yielded great results so far.

My partner, who is also a second-year student in the same school and program as mine, is irreplaceable. I am a klutz, and she always seems to catch me when I slip a little. Together we make a great team, and it’s an absolute pleasure working alongside her. Our mentor is very responsible and knowledgeable on the subject. I can always rely on her if I ever need help or if I’m doubting myself. After graduation, everything’s still up in the air in terms of the timeline, but I do know my goals will be more clinical and molecular-science based. As someone who will be a clinical geneticist and epidemiologist, I will undoubtedly be doing research most of the time.