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Working hand in glove
While living and working in a distant Japanese city, Cassie Lowell, S.B. ’17, found that the collaborative language of engineering design transcends cultures.
Lowell, a biomedical engineering concentrator at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, worked at Hiroshima University this summer, co-developing a glove that uses pneumatic actuators to assist wrist motions.
Her internship in the lab of biological system engineering researcher Yuichi Kurita turned out to be the perfect marriage of Lowell’s engineering concentration and secondary in East Asian studies. The Marylander, who had never traveled outside North America, decided to embark on an international internship to broaden her horizons.
“My grandfather had worked on shipping boats and would often travel to Japan. He would bring me really neat presents and tell these cool stories,” she said. “Hearing about things so far away in a totally different culture was fascinating to me, and I wanted to experience that for myself.”
Lowell recalls feeling an initial wave of culture shock at the sprawling university—the first day she walked into the Kurita laboratory, she was asked to remove her shoes, in keeping with Japanese customs.
“It terrified me for a minute because my first instinct, from working in labs in the U.S., was about the importance of personal protective equipment,” she said. “Here I am, looking around this futuristic computer lab, and everyone is either in their bare feet or slippers.”
Lowell soon felt right at home as she began collaborating with graduate student Swagata Das on the assistive glove, drawing up plans and troubleshooting different designs. Given free rein to develop their own project, the team chose to focus on wrist-wearable technology because it combined their interests with the opportunity to help individuals who suffer from common health problems.
The pair retrofitted an inexpensive, elbow-length glove with a series of stretch sensors around the wrist. As an individual moves his or her hand slightly, those sensors activate corresponding air-inflatable actuators that assist with the flexion, extension, and rotation of the hand, she explained. The pneumatic “artificial muscles” pull the hand in the desired direction.
“There is a wide variety of applications for a glove like this,” she said. “It would be very useful for individuals who suffer from arthritis or carpal tunnel syndrome. Like the U.S., Japan has a large aging population, many of whom suffer from those restrictive conditions. This is a pretty simple solution that could help these people gain strength and have more independence later in life.”
In preliminary tests, Lowell and Das found that by using their device, an individual would need to exert an average of 60 percent less energy to move his or her wrist. They submitted a paper to the Asia Haptics Conference and, if the project is accepted, Das will present their work in November.
Lowell said that the open-ended nature of the project and the high level of self-direction required were among the biggest challenges. Learning to be self-sufficient in a country where she only marginally understood the language was scary at first, but as the summer progressed, she saw that the researchers in the Kurita lab had much in common with their Harvard peers.
In addition to gaining valuable research experience, Lowell enjoyed the challenge of thinking about engineering in a different cultural setting, one that puts a very strong emphasis on teamwork and community.
“Working with students from other countries showed me a whole new world of approaches to good engineering design,” she said. “These experiences will definitely help me to be more open-minded as I go forward in my education and career.”