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Engineering abroad: Buckeyes take next step with prosthetic foot

Photo of Buckeye engineers (from left) Nick Lennon, Spencer Leckrone, Ingrid Huang, Kassandra Oxendale and Jared Seidel.Buckeye engineers (from left) Nick Lennon, Spencer Leckrone, Ingrid Huang, Kassandra Oxendale, Jared Seidel and Carlos Mendez (not pictured) spent 10 weeks in India this summer as part of an engineering research internship.This summer—amid the unique sights and sounds of India—six Buckeye engineers enjoyed a global internship experience like no other. Their mission? To conduct the rigorous engineering research necessary to improve the Jaipur foot—a low-cost, simple prosthetic—for eventual mass production so it can relieve the suffering of amputees worldwide.

A collaboration between The Ohio State University, Colorado State University, Dr. P.K. Sethi Rehabilitation and Jaipur Training Center and the Malaviya National Institute of Technology, the three-year project is supported by a $147,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Lisa Abrams, associate director of the college’s Engineering Education Innovation Center, leads the program with Sheryl Sorby, professor of education and human ecology at Ohio State.

“We wanted to give students a global experience,” explained Abrams. “We also thought that this opportunity would be a great way to get all students, but particularly women and minority students, excited about research and engineering.” 

Since its development in the 1970s, the Jaipur foot has proven to be ideally suited to the Indian culture. Composed of wood, foam and rubber, the prosthetic is handmade by artisans at a cost of approximately $13 each. Extremely pliable, it can be worn with or without shoes and supports key daily activities such as squatting, bicycling, and walking on uneven surfaces and roads. Despite its renown in India, the device is relatively unheard of in other parts of the world. By enabling mass production, Dr. Anil Jain, director of the Dr. P.K Sethi Rehabilitation and Jaipur Limb Training Centre, hopes to expand its use to help indigent workers and victims of landmines throughout India and other needy countries. 

During the 10-week research internship, the Ohio State engineering students lived and worked in Jaipur, the capital and largest city in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan. Working with graduate students from Malaviya National Institute of Technology and under the guidance of Professor Harlal Singh Mali, they were given four primary tasks for this first year of the project. 

First, the interns were asked to develop a test fixture capable of distinguishing materials that fall in an acceptable range, something that is critically needed as there is a lot of variability in the vendor-supplied materials that comprise the feet. Little is currently known about the quantitative properties of the Jaipur foot’s components, so students first needed to characterize them before starting work on the fixture. 

Photo: Spencer Leckrone works on the first-ever computer model of the Jaipur foot.Spencer Leckrone helped develop the first-ever computer model of the Jaipur foot, which can help researchers determine acceptable limits on its components.

In order to help more accurately predict when the prosthetics might fail, the Buckeye engineers created a database to track potential correlations between the materials used in a specific prosthetic and a patient’s gender, weight, activity level, usage, footwear or other factors. 

They also developed a computer model of the Jaipur foot, an optimization tool that researchers can use to determine acceptable limits on components for sustained performance and low stress. 

For Spencer Leckrone, a fourth-year biomedical engineering major, the internship reinforced his dream to pursue pediatric prosthetics as a full-time career. As his first trip abroad, it also helped him practice what he learned in the Humanitarian Engineering Scholars program.

“This program truly resonates within me and I really enjoyed the opportunity to finally put what I have learned to good use,” he explained. 

The experience also had its challenges. First, there was the extreme heat. Temperatures in Jaipur ranged from the 90s up to 113 F during the students’ trip. The Buckeye engineers also had to overcome language and culture barriers, deal with Internet connectivity issues, and be creative about using the limited equipment available to perform their work.

But, as the saying goes, with great challenges, come great rewards. 

“Adaptability has been the greatest challenge, but also the biggest thing I’ve learned,” said materials science and engineering major Ingrid Huang. “This was the longest I have been out of the country and, despite missing a few things back home, I loved it. I enjoyed being able to experience India more so as a local than a tourist.”

Gaining firsthand research experience also sparked new interests for Huang.

“Before the trip I was pretty sure that I did not want to go to graduate school, but now I think that it may be a possibility in the future,” she said. “I have also considered working abroad as a definite possibility.”

Photo of Intern Ingrid Huang measuring a Jaipur foot.Intern Ingrid Huang measures a Jaipur foot to aid in the development of an appropriate test fixture.

Outside of their 40-hour workweeks, the students had ample opportunity to soak up the local history and culture. They explored Jaipur’s historical landmarks and traveled to Delhi and Mumbai. They visited temples, rode an elephant, went on a tiger safari, attended Indian weddings and met many new friends.

“I enjoyed learning about Indian culture, religion and traditions,” Leckrone said. “I love our friends from the university that we have made. They made this whole trip so much fun.”​

Abrams hopes that one or two of the interns will continue working on the research back on campus as an independent study project. Plus, each summer for the next two years, a new group of interns from Ohio State and Colorado State will travel to India to continue the research work. 

For inaugural interns Huang and Leckrone, the internship was a once-in-a-lifetime experience they would highly recommend.

“Even though we ran into struggles along the way, we always had someone to help out,” Leckrone said. “The people of India are very helpful and generous and this was shown by the amount of help they provided us while we were working on this project.”

Help give Buckeye engineering students a global experience: Make an impact at home and abroad by supporting the Humanitarian Engineering Center via go.osu.edu/giveHE.

by Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications, clevenger.87@osu.edu