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Breaking down education barriers

When Jen Schlegel battled one health problem after another in college, many urged her to temper her career goals. But she refused to give up. As one of two recipients of the 2020 President’s Prize, Schlegel will spend the 2020-21 school year helping address technical barriers to success for the physically disabled.

The senior biomedical engineering major will receive a $50,000 living stipend and up to $50,000 in startup funding through the President’s Prize, the highest university recognition bestowed on exceptional students committed to social change.

“It’s honestly such a relief because it gives me a great deal of freedom—that’s what I came here for and it is the most remarkable gift,” Schlegel said. “I went into biomedical engineering because I wanted to help other people with the things that I struggled with and in doing so I stumbled upon some very large problems.”

More than 40 million Americans—including Schlegel—have limited dexterity. Born more than three months early with cerebral palsy, she has faced numerous health problems throughout her life. A series of health events during college resulted in further dexterity and mobility challenges.

“My project is trying to solve the issue of, how do you do written work if you can’t hold a pencil?” explained Schlegel. “For me, it became very personal because I lost my ability to hold a pencil a couple of years ago. Going through my biomedical engineering classwork, that was pretty difficult.”

Schlegel leads a team in developing a software/mobile application that facilitates the connection between ideas and written work. Handicom is a finger tap-based app with a built-in library, allowing for seamless transfer of homework, images, diagrams, equations and more.

A local Columbus software development firm will do the coding for Handicom, while Schlegel and her team will hold community events and conduct public beta-testing to get as much feedback as possible. By the end of the year, she hopes to have a functioning beta version that suits community needs and generates conversation on the gold standards for accessibility.

“I came to Ohio State for a better quality of life, but it was very complicated. I walked into Ohio State with six health problems and now I'm rolling away with 14,” Schlegel said.

“Early on in college when I had frustrating moments, I was like, ‘What am I doing here? Why did I think this was a good idea? But my college and my department really stepped in and were willing to work with me to ensure that I would be able to get the same education as the rest of my peers. It was a lot of hard work. I did the work, but I would not still be here without them.”

Inspired by her early experiences as a biomedical engineering patient to improve things for others, Schlegel ultimately hopes to become a physician. But knew she would need the right tools—which don’t yet exist—to accomplish that. So she became an engineer in order to build them.

“I took the opinion that I could either sit around feeling sorry for my situation or I could try to do something about it,” she said.

Students Jen Schlegel, Muyuan Li and George Oshiotse talk to others during the Brain Health Hack.The 119 team—led by Jen Schlegel (right)—was the Challenge 2 winner of Ohio State’s 2018 Brain Health Hack.

In addition to Handicom, Schlegel is also developing HandikAPP, a touchscreen platform that gives limited-to-no dexterity users access to advanced coding capabilities, and 119, an app that helps bystanders determine the appropriate emergency medical response for an individual with a chronic health condition. She is also the founder of BeEnabled LLC, an accessibility consulting and design firm.

Among her many accolades, Schlegel won the Chronic Brain Injury Category at Ohio State’s 2018 Brain Health Hack, the Ohio State chapter of the Toyota Mobility Project, 2018 and 2019 Tech Hub Student Project Grants, and the Student Life Disability Services Outstanding Student Advocate Award. She is also a 2019 University Innovation Fellow.

“It has been especially exciting to watch Jen evolve into what some may call a serial innovator in a space that is often under-pursued when it comes to innovation,” said Biomedical Engineering Assistant Professor of Practice Tanya Nocera. “She is never short of ideas for improving accessibility in academia and in society, and she has fought her way through a difficult engineering curriculum to gain the skills and knowledge necessary to make those ideas start to come to life.”

When asked how she has accomplished so much while pursuing her degree, Schlegel is quick to credit those who supported her along the way. Along with Nocera, her staunchest supporters include advisor Cory Matyas and faculty member Alexis Ortiz-Rosario from the biomedical engineering department.

“I would have been content with just being a Buckeye alumna. I never would have in a thousand years thought that I would have ended up being some kind of success story,” Schlegel said. “But every story of success that I have would not have been possible without the people that I have behind me.”

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