Tim Reissman, PhD (center), works with Illinois Math and Science
Academy students Vimal Bellamkonda (left) and Timothy Akintilo
(right) on a wireless communications device that tracks when a
person is trying to stand.
Every Wednesday morning for six months, Vimal Bellamkonda and Timothy Akintilo boarded a bus at 7 a.m. to travel from Aurora to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC). The journey took up to two hours depending on traffic, but the two teenagers usually didn’t mind—as high school juniors, they were simply excited to put the knowledge they are learning in school to practical use.
From September to April, Bellamkonda, 16, and Akintilo, 15, both juniors at the Illinois Math and Science Academy (IMSA), worked at RIC’s Center for Bionic Medicine (CBM) as part of a unique student research program coordinated by their high school. The Student Inquiry and Research (SIR) program, formally established in 1989, is a collaborative academic research program available for IMSA juniors and seniors. Students who participate in the program gain real-world experience by working one day a week in laboratories, companies, educational institutions, and museums around the Chicagoland area.
“It’s like a graduate school experience because they’re doing research in laboratories or businesses,” says Judith Scheppler, PhD, coordinator of SIR and director of IMSA’s Grainger Center for Imagination and Inquiry. “Most of these students have never been in a work environment before, so we want them to figure out how to do data collection and statistical analysis. How do you think critically? How do you present your results? How do you work with a professional?”
Detecting mobility: Red arrow shows receiver/
recording unit worn on wrist. Purple arrow
indicates cabinet-mounted transmitter.
At CBM, Bellamkonda and Akintilo helped researchers develop a wireless communications network that will track when and where people with mobility-limiting disabilities (for example, after a stroke or a leg amputation) try to stand while at home. Researchers hope the network - comprising several transmitters that can be placed inconspicuously within a home, and a single recording unit, or “receiver,” that can be worn like a wristwatch – will help occupational and physical therapists learn more about the needs of their patients. This network works in similar ways to a person’s home wireless Internet set-up - the receiver records the strength of the transmitted signal. The closer a person is to a transmitter, the stronger the signal becomes. Because all of the transmitters are placed in high places within a home (such as a cabinet or shelf), a strong signal indicates a person is standing.
“Using this system, we can monitor how much patients are trying to use the therapies they learn in the hospital in order to stand,” says Tim Reissman, PhD, a post-doctoral fellow at CBM who is supervising the students. “In the meantime, we need to prove to the community that this is a valid assessment tool.”
Reissman explains that current technologies, including smart phones and fitness watches, can assess when people are highly active, such as when a person is exercising or walking. But many individuals with mobility-limiting disabilities are less active and may stay within their homes. The challenge then is to effectively record smaller everyday movements, such as standing up to make a sandwich or do laundry. As more is learned about how patients behave within their homes and use (or don’t use) the therapies they practice in their clinical sessions, therapists can design more effective rehabilitation techniques.
“If a person has limited mobility, then we must think about where they do most of their primary activities, and it might be in the kitchen, the living room, or another room,” Reissman explains. “So being able to assess whether they are standing when they’re doing activities in the kitchen would show whether or not the therapies a patient receives are effective in the home, or whether or not therapists really need to build a patient’s confidence in using cabinets, cooking at the stove, or using higher shelves, for example.”
CBM post-doctoral fellows Tim Reissman and Luca Lonini with Illinois
Math and Science Academy students Vimal Bellamkonda and
Timothy Akintilo at IMSAloquium on April 17.
When helping build the prototype, Bellamkonda and Akintilo analyzed data and performed basic experiments. They started by testing current wireless communication technologies, including Bluetooth and RFID, but found XBee to be the most effective technology for this project. As a result of research produced by the students and other CBM engineers, the system they helped create may soon be tested in clinical trials with patients. In addition to helping therapists better understand patients’ habits, the wireless system may also serve as an important assessment tool in future projects, including an endeavor aimed at developing an innovative manual standing wheelchair. That specific project is part of RIC’s newly-formed Technologies to Evaluate and Advance Manipulation and Mobility (TEAMM) research center.
Both teenagers say their experience at RIC has helped them hone necessary analytical skills, and understand how much dedication is needed in scientific research.
“For me, I’m getting used to the whole research environment,” says Bellamkonda, who is from Peoria, Illinois. “I’ve never worked in a professional setting like this. Apart from doing the research itself, I have to learn how to meet deadlines, how to work with the team.”
Akintilo, of Bourbonnais, Illinois, agrees, adding that he’s learned how to persevere through trial and error. “We’ll find a potential solution, and then immediately we’ll find something wrong with [trying to implement the device] -- the range of it is too short or it’s too expensive,” he explains. “Or we’ll buy a product, test it, and find it doesn’t work to our liking, so we have to try another one, and another one.”
In April, Bellamkonda and Akintilo presented their research at IMSAloquium, a scientific conference hosted at the high school. After graduating from high school, both teenagers hope to continue similar research at the university level --Bellamkonda as a pre-med student and Akintilo as a biomedical engineering or neuroscience student.
“It just is fascinating to me. Now, we are able to apply engineering to ourselves. Being able to see man and machine come together is fascinating,” Akintilo says. “Hopefully I’ll become a neuroscientist or neurosurgeon and then move to prosthetic devices.”
Bellamkonda is still deciding on what area of medicine he wants to study, but he believes the skills he learned at RIC have better prepared him for any scientific career. “It’s been a really rewarding experience. I’m really glad I came,” he says. “It’s something I feel like I couldn’t have gotten anywhere else, so I’m grateful to RIC for taking me on.”
– Sheila Burt