March 29th, 2012
11:56 AM ET

Pushing limits with a fearless bionic man

Editor's Note: David Sengeh is a Research Assistant under Hugh Herr at the Biomechatronics Group at MIT’s Media Lab. 

By David Sengeh, Special to CNN

“David, this is so #$%&-ing sexy!” said Professor Hugh Herr as I showed him a prototype for the latest prosthetic socket I had been working on as a graduate student in the Biomechatronics Group at the MIT Media Lab.

The multi-material variable impedance prosthetic socket I had just designed relieved unwanted pressure over critical locations on his residual limb, thereby making him more comfortable.

In the Biomechatronics Group, we investigate how technology can be used to enhance human physical capability. Working with Professor Herr is inspiring; on a gorgeous day, he will change from his powered robotic ankle-foot prostheses and step into his running legs for a jog with members of my group.

Most often, he is seen walking in between two parallel bars while testing prototypes for the various prostheses we design.

When I joined the Media Lab from Harvard University two years ago, Professor Herr reminded me that prosthetic socket design was the hardest and most important research area in prosthetics, as an estimated 100% of amputees experience socket discomfort.

It would be a personal challenge for both of us. A comfortable socket will enhance Professor Herr’s life as an active dynamic amputee who enjoys sports like rock climbing. For me, it was an equally personal journey – an avenue to actively participate in the development of my native country, Sierra Leone, where thousands of citizens were maimed in a decade-long civil war.

A low-cost, functional and comfortable prosthetic socket will allow these amputees to once again be a productive part of a post-conflict nation in the process of healing.

Professor Herr and I share a common agenda to improve the interfaces through which people are connected to mechanical devices, especially prostheses.

During a recent trial at the lab, one of prosthetic sockets broke as Professor Herr was testing it. He quickly grabbed unto the parallel bars just in time to avoid crashing to the floor. He hopped closer on one leg, sat in a chair nearby and we analyzed the reasons for the failure. We cracked jokes in between conversations about how to improve the socket. Minutes later I was back on the computer, iterating on a design.

Having a fearless and modern bionic man as a boss means we are constantly learning from, and with, our number-one user. We are never hesitant to push the limits, nor do we forget that our designs must maintain a level of aesthetic appeal for the amputee.

Together we fall and rise, together we learn, and together we work towards a world where one day an amputee can comfortably wear his prostheses - whether he is my boss at MIT or a friend in Sierra Leone.

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