Human technology

Making its way through MIT | MIT News


Lucy Du, a PhD student at MIT Media Lab, has a remarkable passion for creation. She spends her working day in the laboratory designing and manufacturing prostheses, and devotes her free time to personal projects in the MIT MakerWorkshop or inspire other students to try their hand at engineering. “The best feeling is when I go to a store and make parts or order parts – and the day they arrive it’s like Christmas,” she says.

His affinity for manufacturing began at a young age. “I loved building things and having tangible material to work on. Sitting there and coding or doing math all day was never what I wanted, ”says Du. She was part of a high school robotics team and drew inspiration from Disney movies and entertainment for many years, especially as their humanoid animatronic technology developed. (Disney’s “oddly organic-looking” stunt robot Spiderman is one of his favorites.)

Now, as a fourth year doctoral student, Du is channeling her passion for construction into designing a prosthetic ankle that is easily accessible to people of all sizes, as current business designs are only suitable for tall people. cut.

She also shares her love of engineering in her activities outside of the lab. Throughout her time here (Du also earned her undergraduate and masters degrees from MIT), she found ways to make construction and engineering more accessible to others, from creating a space to creation of students in high school education. She even turned a role on Discovery’s reality TV show “BattleBots” into an opportunity to inspire kids in engineering.

Manufacture of prostheses

When Du completed her Masters in Mechanical Engineering in 2016, she was ready to experiment with something outside of academia. She then worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, but after two years she began to feel an itch to get her doctorate. Even as she considered other schools, MIT emerged as an obvious choice. “MIT has so many resources and so many opportunities that you can be here for years and years without even scratching the surface,” she says. “I think that was where I was supposed to be.”

Du knew she wanted to work on animatronic robotics. Finding the right lab wasn’t smooth, but it ended up in the Biomechatronics Group under Professor of Media Arts and Sciences Hugh Herr. Installed within the Media Lab, it is an interdisciplinary laboratory largely focused on prostheses, exoskeletons and the human-robot interface. She knew that Herr’s lab was the perfect fit for her due to the emphasis on hardware design. “It’s actually very difficult to find robotics labs that focus on building hardware,” she notes. “Many robotics labs will buy the hardware for a project and focus only on the software. I believe in designing your hardware with the end application in mind, as that can improve the whole process.

To this end, Du’s research project is focused on designing the hardware for a robotic ankle that performs better than what is currently available. “Hopefully the design will be able to fully mimic biological movements, including brisk walking, up and down stairs and ramps, and other common movements you would do throughout a day,” she explains.

Currently, there is only one commercial prosthetic ankle that provides enough strength to walk. But it has notable limitations, says Du. Because the design is tall and bulky, “you have to either be a tall person or have a very short residual limb after amputation to be able to wear the product.”

In contrast, his prosthetic ankle has a smaller profile that would allow more people to use it. She notes, “The design itself is meant to be scaled, so you can have the same design and scale it down for kids or other people who don’t need that much power, then adapt it to larger adults. “

Inspire other creators

Du has devoted a great deal of time and energy during his years at MIT helping others explore manufacturing and engineering. As a master’s student, she was an instructor for the Technology Program for Women in Mechanical Engineering, a summer program for high school girls that aims to inspire them to pursue engineering studies. During a one-month crash course, she was one of three instructors to graduate from the Mechanical Engineering degree program, teaching 20 high school girls the basics of kinematics and dynamics and working with them on practical and interesting experiences.

Mentoring, she says, is “probably the most rewarding thing I’ve done” – especially watching some of these students go to MIT and excel. She continued to cultivate her love of teaching and mentoring as a teaching assistant during her doctoral program.

Du is also a founding member and leader of MIT MakerWorkshop, the only makerspace entirely managed by students at MIT. As a master’s student, she noticed an unmet need for a creative space where students could work on their personal projects, at times that were convenient for them and that did not conflict with class time. . Even though there were already a lot of workshops on campus, she said, “it was’ quite difficult to get into a machine shop and for most of them you weren’t supposed to work. only on class projects or research projects ”.

The MakerWorkshop was more than a workplace for Du; he has also been a hub for connections and inspiration throughout his graduate career. “A lot of times I have an engineering problem or a life problem and I just want to talk to someone. I could walk into space, someone would be there, and you could just tell them about their experiences or have some impromptu design reviews on the board.

Du’s bond with MakerWorkshop has taken her in an unexpected direction: reality TV. She was one of a group of MakerWorkshop members who formed a team called SawBlaze for the Discovery show “Combat robots“, a cover of an old Comedy Central show from the early 2000s. On the show, teams build 250-pound robots to” fight to the death “in an arena. The SawBlaze team has competed in four seasons to date, starting in 2016 with season 2. “It’s really different from what we usually design and build [for research or class], because you design in the event of a hardware failure, ”says Du. So far, experience has taught him to plan and design for the most extreme impact cases, often relying on intuition, experience, and empirical testing, as these scenarios typically go beyond modeling limits.

However, Du isn’t very interested in the screen time the role of “BattleBots” has given her. Although she’s excited for the show’s upcoming season 6, she favors awareness-raising events, called maker faires, where amazed kids enthusiastically report their favorite robots and she has the opportunity to share how she got started in engineering.

This fall marks Du’s 10th year of career at MIT. As she begins to think about what to do after graduation, she keeps an open mind. She knows that she wants to work on the development of new technologies, whether this leads her to industry or academia. And she knows that teaching and mentoring will play an important role in her future. “The more time you spend teaching, the more rewarding it is,” she says. “Watching your students get it and get better just means the world to me.”