When curiosity meets support, your ideas take the stage

    “If I work as an engineer, I have the chance to develop new technologies that doctors can use. I can help a wider range of people.”

    By Brenda Reynolds on August 20, 2019

    (Edmonton) Imagine a prosthetic hand having human-like intuition to pick up a library book and delicately flip through its pages. The impact this kind of technology could have on the quality of life for amputees is monumental.

    And it’s just one of the Portia Rayner’s world-changing ideas she and her research partner are getting support for through Engineering at Alberta.

    “It's mostly me being curious,” she explains.

    Now entering her second year of studies with her sights set on biomedical engineering, Rayner started bringing her idea to life after connecting with mentors at The Pod, an Engineering at Alberta innovation group established to provide mentorship and help students with big ideas.
     
    Artificial Intelligence and the HANDI Hand
     
    When she toured engineering facilities and met UAlberta computer engineering alumnus Steven Knudsen at The Pod, Rayner stumbled upon the open-sourced HANDI Hand project.
     
    “Steven was showing us around, and I stayed to talk to him. And I thought, ‘this is really cool.’ Later I found a project I wanted to do—HANDi Hand—so I approached him about doing it at The Pod.”
     
    The HANDI Hand is a 3-D printed prosthetic hand created by biomedical engineering graduate student Dylan Brenneis in the Bionic Limbs for Improved Natural Control (BLINC) lab. The hand was built to assist amputees learn how to use a prosthetic, and Brenneis made it an open-source project so others could improve upon it.
     
    Rayner and her partner are doing just that, focusing on the sensors in the hand. For Rayner, it’s not about fixing the hand, but enhancing it. 
     
    “What we're looking to do is expand the range of things you can do with it.”
    Although the hand has a camera and a sensor, Rayner says the process itself is not efficient. 
     
    “What we want to do with the proximity sensor and the camera is take these two different types of data and combine them so the hand can learn on its own how to grasp something as it's approaching it.” 
     
    For amputees, having an artificial-intelligence-embedded prosthetic would be life-changing. 
     
    “It would make control of prosthetics more intuitive. For example, if you see an object, you don't have think, ‘OK, I need to contract my arm this way to get my fingers to close that way to pick it up.’ I can go for the object based on what the brain makes of that image or what it thinks that object is shaped like.”
     
    In other words, AI adds human-like intelligence to the hand. The impact for an amputee is enormous—potentially giving them a higher quality of life that current prosthetics cannot.  
     
    “We’re trying to make the movement quicker and less frustrating. Because if you go from moving one way to something that feels very unnatural, I think there's damaging psychological effects.”
     
    For Rayner, the goal is making the transition to wearing a prosthetic as smooth as possible. 
     
    Low-cost 3D printer
     
    Building an inexpensive 3-D bioprinter for biomaterial is another one of Rayner’s ideas. Despite the revolution of technology, bioprinters are extremely expensive, running between $10,000 and $200,000 and are difficult to modify. Rayner has some ideas on how to create a version that is less expensive and more effective.
     
    “There are two main schools of thought. One of them is extrusion bioprinting, which is the same as a regular desktop printer, the way you would print. Just by extruding stuff. And the other one is inkjet, where a different type of technology is used.”
     
    A low-cost bioprinter has huge ramifications in the biomedical field, such as 3-D printed artificial organs and skin grafting. Rayner has some other ideas.
     
    “One of them would be working on tendons. Like trying to grow a functional tendon. I’ve known a lot of people who have torn their ACLs. The other idea was growing cancer tumour models to test different drugs on them.
     
    “If you had 3-D scans of a tumour, you could try growing it that way using the 3-D files.”
     
    Instead of testing experimental drugs on human subjects, the drugs would be tested on a tumour that grown from the bioprinter. 
     
    Double the impact
     
    For Rayner, making an impact in the world factored into her decision in choosing engineering as a career. 
     
    “I can study pharmacology, I can become a doctor, but the amount of impact I would actually have is very limited. I'll only be affecting my own patients, whereas if I work as an engineer, I have the chance to develop new technologies that doctors can use. I can help a wider range of people.”
     
    Being impactful comes in many forms. As a female engineering student, Rayner believes she can also make an impact by setting an example for future female students. 
     
    “Since I've been in engineering and have seen how few girls there are . . . to make an impact in that area too, to encourage more girls, it's just something I feel I should be doing.”