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Summer Researchers Focus on Mobility

Two Olin College students, Alex Li and Cecilia Diehl are working on three projects this summer with a singular focus: improving mobility. The Olin students, mentored by Associate Professor of Bioengineering Alisha Sarang-Sieminski, presented all of their work with brief interludes for questions on the second week of Olin's Summer Research talks. Li and Diehl designed the first two inventions with specific consumers in mind. The Up-Down chair is tested and then modified for Mark, a man with limited mobility below the waist. “He’s active, he hikes, but if he falls on his back or his side he’s unable to stand back up," Diehl explained. She and Li originally designed the Up-Down chair last summer, which Mark uses by holding onto the rungs and pushing himself up from the ground to a point where he can get his weight up over his feet. Mark found this original model, made of Polyvinyl chloride polymer, to be too unwieldy and unstable. “It doesn’t make it feel safe. This needs to feel safe for Mark.” Li said. This year, the team took pains to design a more flexible and reliable chair, fiddling with the size and the idea of using aluminum tubing as opposed PVC in order to make it feel more stable. In the future the Up-Down chair may find use in yoga classes for those with mobility issues, who are apprehensive about getting on the ground and being unable to get up.

The second project, also personally designed, was dubbed the Hanna Handle. Hanna suffers from MS and finds standing for extended periods of time incredibly painful, so she carries a collapsable camping stool with her in case she needs to sit down. Li and Diehl are concerned that constantly carrying the stool my it’s many pointy prongs causes strain and nerve damage, so they presented a number of prototypes they hope will make it easier and more comfortable for Hanna to grip the stool. Diehl demonstrated a plastic cap that gathered all the prongs of the stool under one grip, while Li went onto explain a similar cap that pulls the prongs into a clump with use of a draw string. They are currently having Hanna try each design and give feedback. The collapsed stool is also vital for balancing, so it must be sturdy as well as light. “We don’t want this to be a hindrance to her day-to-day movement, we want it to be fast and reliable.”


Their third and final project differs in that it was commissioned by a company. IMPACT, a school that teaches self-defense through verbal deescalation as well as full-force physical techniques, has studios as far-flung as California and Israel. Li, Deihl, and Sarang-Sieminski are coordinating with the Boston chapter to improve body armor as well as document their process of making it. A self-defense instructor wears shoulder armor and a helmet when teaching student how to fight against them, and IMPACT wants students to be able to retaliate with full force without accidentally hurting their teacher due to insufficient armor. Many companies and government branches manufacture armor with better coverage, but “a lot of the other gear that’s more protective doesn’t give them a lot of mobility.” Diehl said. When IMPACT’s current armor manufacturer announced plans to retire, the company came to Olin to ask them to reverse engineering and document how the equipment was made for IMPACT’s benefit. Li also explained he and Diehl are working to improve the technology as well as record their process through blueprints and templates. “The helmet design is like 30 years old.” He said, holding up a two-foot wide foam-and-duct-tape shell fused around an old football helmet. “A lot of things are outdated, there have been reports of concussions.” The team is attending a week-long course in August with the original manufacturer, which they hope will supplement their documentation.


The summer research talks take place on Thursdays in the Olin library at eleven.