Engineering a better future: biomedical engineering graduate feels the need for smart prosthetics

It turns out that liking biology and physics doesn't limit one's opportunities, it expands them. Quinn Boser blended the two to help others through biomedical engineering.

Thien Nguyen - 05 June 2019

(Edmonton) Having access to the best assistive technologies can mean the difference between the independence and dependence for people living with disabilities.

The simple joy of reading, for example, can be out of reach for someone who can't hold a book upright comfortably and turn its pages long enough to get lost in the story.

There are many assistive devices on the market that propose to help people with similar challenges, but mass-market devices often demand compromises from their users. Results are potentially better with custom assistive devices or devices that adapt over time to the user's specific needs and wants.

That's where University of Alberta engineering student Quinn Boser comes in. Boser is graduating this week with a Master's degree in biomedical engineering, under the supervision of Dr. Jacqueline Hebert.

Boser and her colleagues are working to design, build and refine engineering solutions allowing users to feel sensation from their prosthetic limbs, and to test if that sensory feedback is beneficial.

For Boser, the first steps on the road to this research project came early, as a second-year engineering student-but even in high school, she knew she wanted to get into biomedical engineering.

Growing up in Red Deer, Alberta, Boser took different sciences in each year of high school. In Grade 11 she took care of her biology classes and thought she might study medicine. But in Grade 12, she discovered that she liked physics too.

"I saved physics for Grade 12 because I heard it was the hardest, but I ended up really enjoying it too," she said. "Then I was wondered, "What do I do now?"

It turns out that liking biology and physics doesn't limit one's opportunities, but expands them.

"I found out late in Grade 12 that biomedical engineering was a thing, and had the potential to apply both. I thought: "All right, sold," she said.

Boser's passion runs deeper than just liking numbers. It's about helping people. It stems from its applications "that can help people, after they've had an injury, get back in the world."

Following her interests as an undergraduate, Boser landed a spot in the Department of Mechanical Engineering's Biomedical Option program, and completed two work terms with Dr. Albert Vette at the Glenrose Rehabilitation hospital. This opportunity provided her the chance to work closer to the field of rehabilitation and prosthetics and connected her to the Bionic Limbs for Improved Neural Control (BLINC) Lab at the U of A.

The BLINC Lab partners with the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio to develop tests for prosthetic devices with sensory feedback, a project funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. They are doing this using a custom data analytics software, which Boser helped to develop.

There are limitations to current prosthetic limbs-limited control and sensory feedback. Boser is working to solve these challenges so prosthetics are closer to anatomic limbs.

And these limits represent a need for the people who use a prosthetic device. Because they cannot "feel" a prosthetic limb, they need to look at it, to make sure it's doing what they want it to do, said Boser.

The work Boser is part of at the BLINC lab will help provide sensory feelings such as touch and movement.

Because Boser works closely with amputees, she has seen the struggles and how often technology fails them. But she's determined to get prosthetic arms to be as good as users want them to be.

Helping people is something Boser has always strived to do. "That's definitely why I got into this."

With her Master's degree completed, Boser is continuing to work as a research assistant in the BLINC lab, and now feels drawn toward the artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies that play a major role in smart prosthetics.

"I'm sure lots of research groups in Canada are doing great things. But we have a fantastic team, especially in terms of prosthetics research. The stuff that happens in the BLINC lab is exciting. It's a cool interdisciplinary environment."