UD engineering students working as interns with a local prosthetics-orthotics company are applying apply their knowledge to help amputees.

Engineers helping amputees

Local prosthetics company offers multi-faceted internships for students

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8:59 a.m., Sept. 5, 2013--University of Delaware senior Lindsay Evans began her summer as an intern with Independence Prosthetics Orthotics, a full service orthotic and prosthetic care and diabetic foot management company based in Newark, Del. 

She spent two weeks gaining hands-on prosthetic and orthotic fabrication experience with technicians in the company’s Newark custom manufacturing facility; shadowing clinicians during patient appointments and fittings; and learning about administrative back-end processes involving health care and insurance.

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“As a mechanical engineering major with a minor in biomedical engineering and math, I was interested in exploring prosthetics because the field involves both a mechanical and biomedical component,” said Evans, who is among a dozen UD engineering students to complete an internship with Independence this summer. For Evans, the experience led to a full-time summer job and the potential for continued work this winter.

“I’m not exactly sure what my career goals are yet, but working at Independence has definitely helped me clarify my interests,” Evans said.

According to John Horne, the company’s president, as prosthetics technology incorporates an increasing number of bionic devices that operate using batteries, electrodes and computer circuits, opportunities abound for engineers to become involved in the industry. 

While Horne concedes the two-week timeframe is short for an internship, he said that it is meant to give students an overview, so that they can determine whether the field interests them. Additionally, because Independence has its own manufacturing facility, clinicians and technicians often see a patient in the morning, fabricate a prosthetic device and have it ready the same day, an advantage for students eager to learn. 

Zachary Presant, a UD junior, said shadowing clinicians demonstrated in real life the engineering principles he has learned in class. For example, he explained that when patients come to Independence with pain, discomfort or pressure in their orthotic or prosthetic, the technicians consider the concepts of force and pressure when modifying the device for greater comfort, an engineering application he had never considered. 

His favorite part was “the process of fitting, manufacturing and laminating a leg socket in the laboratory” because it was hands-on and allowed Presant to work with some of the machines to assist the technicians.

“I spent quite a bit of time observing, because some of the processes must be handled with such care, but I enjoyed being able to apply my engineering knowledge, especially during appointments with orthotists,” said Presant, also a mechanical engineering major.

Other UD connections

The summer internship program grew out of the company’s sponsorship of a Department of Mechanical Engineering sophomore design competition last spring, where Horne challenged the students to develop innovative prosthetics to help amputees remain active. The result was dozens of ideas including a quick-change prosthetic leg for triathletes and a prosthetic designed for walking on sand.

“It was pretty remarkable and exciting to see the creativity the engineering students displayed in their prosthetic designs,” said Horne, who showcased several of the students’ promising designs at a national conference this summer and plans to sponsor a UD senior design project this fall. 

Additionally, Horne is investigating the possibility of Independence becoming a tenant at UD’s Science, Technology and Advanced Research (STAR) Campus. Already a member of the BADER Consortium, he is particularly interested in the clinical, educational and research model that the STAR Campus represents, and said he would welcome the opportunity to collaborate with the University’s therapy programs.

He explained that in 2012, the prosthetics-orthotics industry adopted a master’s model effectively changing the landscape of potential hires. Previously, clinicians or technicians entering the field had decades of experience in health care, he said. Now college students studying to become therapists often discover the prosthetics and orthotics field and go directly into the master’s program. 

“I view the STAR Campus as an opportunity to collaborate with UD to provide students early field experience and exposure to the hand skills needed in the profession and the various aspects of patient care before they graduate and begin their residency training,” Horne said.

"UD's vision for the STAR Campus is to build a site where we can strategically align academics with industry partners to create opportunities for faculty and students," said Andy Lubin, UD director of real estate development. "Independence Prosthetics Orthotics is the type of tenant that we believe would not only thrive at the STAR Campus but would also add to the research and collaboration already happening at UD."

Article by Karen B. Roberts

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