Combine students interested in engineering, physical therapy and medicine, and what do you get? The Engineering Wellness through Biomechanics Lab at the University of Dayton, helping people move and live better.
"Engineering students sometimes wonder if they should stay in engineering or go into physical therapy. The great thing about biomechanics is they can do both," said associate professor Kim Bigelow, Engineering Wellness through Biomechanics Lab director.
In the lab, Bigelow and her students conduct research that can transform clinical care – especially for individuals who have balance issues.
"That's the beauty of engineering ... you can easily find a connection between the science and your passion. For me, it was finding ways to help people and improve their quality of life."
In collaboration with Dr. Kurt Jackson and students in UD’s Doctor of Physical Therapy Program, Bigelow is developing new and practical ways to help people with multiple sclerosis (MS) improve their health and well-being. One surprising solution? Kickboxing. Their research suggests the kicks, punches and knee movements associated with kickboxing are a safe and feasible option to improve balance and mobility. The group is now examining how ankle-foot orthoses can improve walking and reduce fatigue for individuals with MS.
Older adults are another group with proportionally high balance issues. One in three individuals aged 65 and older falls each year. To improve this statistic – and quality of life for seniors – Bigelow and her students are establishing ways to better identify individuals who might be at risk, prevent falls and mitigate related injuries.
In addition to her team's efforts in the lab, students in Bigelow's first-year design course, along with students in the School of Engineering's Innovation Center, have worked with both the Kettering Health Network NeuroRehab & Balance Center and United Rehabilitation Services on assistive devices — funded by a three-year, $75,000 National Science Foundation General & Age-Related Disabilities Engineering project grant. Devices include hinged wrist orthotics for patients with clenched fists, easier-to-open pill boxes for patients with limited dexterity, and modified golf clubs for stroke patients.
"I've always wanted to help make a difference in the lives of others — and that's the beauty of engineering," said Bigelow. "The field is so broad, you can easily find a connection between the science and your passion. For me, it was finding ways to help people and improve their quality of life."
Since Bigelow opened the lab in 2009, she has mentored nearly 80 students. They've achieved great things for medical device companies like 3M and Ethicon and have been admitted to preeminent graduate schools. Four of her students received National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships to pursue their doctoral degrees.