Johns Hopkins Gazette: May 19, 1997

Snapshots from the
Academic Divisions

Engineering Change

Since losing his hands and forearms in a 1994 industrial accident, George Rickels, 59, of Baltimore, has wanted to do carpentry and minor home repairs without relying on another person for help. Three Hopkins engineering students, including one who is himself a double-amputee, have invented equipment to grant Rickels' wish.

Seniors Mili Ashar, Jay Humphries and Aaron Kim developed a mechanism that allows Rickels to attach a power drill, power saw or power screwdriver to his prosthetic arms without help from another person. Rickels made his request to the non-profit Volunteers for Medical Engineering organization, which handed the assignment to the students last fall.

The power tool mechanism was among 10 Hopkins inventions constructed by undergraduates in the Engineering Design Project course. The finished devices were judged last week by representatives of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, concluding a process that began last September when the three-member student teams were asked to solve real-world engineering challenges posed by corporate and institutional sponsors.

Creating the power-tool mechanism had special significance for Humphries, who lost his legs in a 1991 land mine explosion while serving with the U. S. Army in Northern Iraq. Prosthetic limbs have restored much of his mobility, and he was anxious to help Rickels regain some independence as well. "It's really rewarding to see how we've helped the guy out," says Humphries, 26. "Just being able to do things without someone else's help is a really good feeling. It took me a while until I was able to function normally, so I know what the guy is going through."

For another project, the U.S. Army Research Laboratory in Aberdeen posed this challenge to the engineering students: Create a snake-like robot that can slither across rugged terrain, staying close to the ground to avoid detection by an enemy sentry. A camera and a microphone mounted on the device could transmit important surveillance information without risking a soldier's life. Students Josh Nisenbaum, Chris Singer and David Stein took up the challenge, developing a radio-controlled system of interlocking platforms, which exceeded their sponsor's expectations.

"This is real engineering," says Raymond Von Wahlde, an Army Research Laboratory official who oversaw the project. "It's an excellent class. Not only do the students get to apply the engineering skills they've learned in class, but they have to be able to present an oral report and a written report. They had to do a lot of research to find out what components are available and what has to be machined. And they had to work within a budget."

Each team, working within a $6,000 budget, had to design a device, purchase or fabricate the parts, and assemble the final product. Other projects developed this year included a lightweight, inexpensive page-turning device for the disabled; and a scanning unit that inspects cracks inside elbow-shaped utility pipes. Four of this year's projects cannot be unveiled publicly because of the need to protect a sponsor's patent rights.

The Engineering Design Project course is taught by Andrew F. Conn, a Hopkins graduate with more than 25 years of experience in public and private research and development. In past years, his students have developed a "safer" handgun that does not fire in the hands of an unauthorized user; an infrared mouth-held device that allows a quadriplegic to operate a computer from bed; an automatic wheelchair brake; a bicycle helmet that offers more protection than commercial headgear; and a wheelchair lift powered by a van's exhaust.

The VME organization has sponsored several design projects in recent years, and John Staehlin, the group's founder and president, has been pleased with the results. "I've done enough brainstorming with the students to know that their ideas come from working on the lawn mower or using their father's wrenches," he said. "They're a pretty ingenious group."

Staehlin, who spent nearly 40 years as a Westinghouse consulting engineer before retiring in 1994, said the design projects also help prepare students for the type of assignments they'll receive on the job. "That practical experience is extremely valuable," he said. "You're putting to use all of the education you've gotten in various disciplines. It's a great way of applying all of the things you've learned."

New MPH headed back to Cree village in Canada

James Bay, Canada, a sub-Arctic village of 3,000, will soon have a population increase of four. When Robert Harris, a doctor graduating with a master's of public health in international health from the School of Hygiene and Public Health, his wife Tineke, and children, Esmerelda and Emilio, return after nearly a two year absence, Harris will turn his attention to some of the pressing public health problems facing the village.

"The village was disrupted by the construction of a hydroelectric project in the 1970s, which changed their lifestyle," says Harris, who before coming to Hopkins was practicing medicine in the village. Tineke, who is a registered nurse, assisted. "The government relocated the village to another site, and people were financially compensated. They'd had a very active lifestyle hunting and fishing, but suddenly became more sedentary. Their diet changed and, within five years, diabetes became a major problem."

Armed with new knowledge about how to mount a public health effort and confidence that good health is a human right and not a luxury, Harris will return to James Bay to do what he can to help initiate changes to benefit public health.

"If there is one thing I learned, it's that a health initiative must come from within the community," explains Harris. "I will be a resource now that I know more about approaches to public health problem solving and have the organizational skills to get them moving."

Harris, who was born and raised in Colombia, South America, went to Montreal, Canada to study medicine and received his M.D. from McGill University. He spent time in clinical rotations in Egypt and India before going to James Bay. Besides health threats like diabetes, Harris is concerned with mercury levels in the rivers where the people of James Bay fish, and the impact of development on the caribou herd they depend on for much of their subsistence.

Along with his MPH, he received a certificate in health and human rights. "Using that framework I feel prepared to attack any problem of health and human rights. For example, if children are under-immunized, it becomes an issue of human rights, not just a medical issue," says Harris, who gained an affection for Baltimore during his stay.

Michael Hersch gets Guggenheim

At 25, Michael Hersch is one of the youngest recipients of the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship since Aaron Copeland. Graduating with a master's degree in Composition from the Peabody Conservatory of Music, Hersch will spend the next year working on the composition that he proposed in his Guggenheim application. The unexpected Guggenheim Fellowship comes as a pleasant surprise.

"It usually takes years to get a Guggenheim fellowship," says Hersch. "It's something everyone wants, but it's a long shot. I sent them a proposal about what I would do, but I applied with no expectations."

Hersch's Guggenheim award is the fourth in a stream of recent major awards he has collected. In January he received first prize in the American Composer Awards, which led to his composition, Elegy, being performed at Lincoln Center by the Concordia Orchestra. He also received a Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a prize from the New York Youth Symphony's "First Music Competition." On May 18 his prize-winning composition, Movement for Orchestra, was performed in Carnegie Hall. Before getting the Guggenheim, his compositional hat-trick was capped by a grant from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

Hersch, who holds a Certificate in Composition from the Moscow Conservatory, fulfilled a long-time wish when he went to Moscow to study and compose. "I had always been drawn to the idea of composing in Moscow," he says. "Their's is a very different system. The certificate is not based on earned credits but on performance."

Studying and composing in Moscow proved musically inspirational and rewarding, but logistically difficult in the chaotic wake of post-Soviet life. "Musically, the experience was perfect, but in many ways it was frustrating and difficult because of the social changes going on there," says Hersch, who felt an immediate creative drive on arriving in Moscow. "When I got there, I knew instantly I was in a place where I could compose. I felt at home. In a more perfect world, I would have spent more time there."

Following the completion of his Guggenheim composition, Hersch will begin teaching and start work on his doctoral degree.

Eight graduating nursing students nominated for award

Eight graduating nursing students are leaving a unique legacy from their clinical community rotation in Essex, Md. For parents of children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder who attend Stemmer's Run Elementary School, the student nurses created a booklet entitled "The ABCs of ADHD." They also presented information during an educational evening for parents of children diagnosed with ADHD.

"The idea to write the booklet was a group decision," says graduating nursing student Julie MacPhee, who noted the unusually high diagnosis rate of ADHD--65 of 900 students--at Stemmer's Run Elementary. "The school nurse asked for help. Neither she nor the parents had many resources. Over seven weeks we put out a questionnaire for parents and students and then put the booklet together as a tool and resource."

With easy-to-read chapters on diagnostic criteria, medications, common misconceptions, tips and problem solutions and resources, the booklet walks parents through questions and answers on ADHD. Parents of undiagnosed children are cautioned that their child may have ADHD if the child exhibits two classes of symptoms: hyperactivity (impulsiveness) or non-hyperactivity (inattentiveness). Hyperactive symptoms include talking excessively, behavioral problems at home or school, an inability to sit still, answering a question before someone finishes asking it and frequent excessive bursts of energy. Non-hyperactivity symptoms are disorganization, difficulty paying attention, failing to pay attention to details and an inability to "tune out" surrounding noises.

"One of the biggest contributions these nursing students made was in laying the foundation for a support group for parents at the school," explains Marie Kirwin, the group's clinical instructor. "They also helped dispel some of the misconceptions about ADHD," adds Kirwin.

"At our presentation a lot of the parents seemed to bond with one another," says graduating student May-Lin Ng. "When we asked, we found a strong desire to have a support group."

Parental fears and misconceptions surfaced during the presentation.

"Many parents thought that there was a cure for ADHD, but there isn't," Ng said. "Others thought that there might be some foods that contribute to ADHD, but no research has shown that."

The booklet, however, does address possible causes of ADHD, such as poor maternal nutrition, smoking during pregnancy, lead poisoning and infections. Parents are also carefully informed about medications, such as Ritalin, DextroStat and Cylert, that may reduce the symptoms by correcting the brain's chemical imbalance, but not "cure" ADHD. Parents are told about medication side effects and given tips on how to provide an understanding and helpful environment at home. Common misconceptions about ADHD are given attention.

The student authors, who include April Byrd, Michelle Clark, Marlo Hardy, Julie MacPhee, Michele Madlock, May-Lin Ng, Alina Sibley and Adriene Tronzo, have been nominated for a student achievement award from the Maryland Public Health Association.

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