Student News Brief

Repairing the World, one engineering project at a time

Bioengineering student brings adaptive engineering group to SEAS

Blake Hanan

Blake Hanan, a bioengineering Ph.D. candidate in the Mooney Lab.

How long does it take you to pick up a pen? Just a few seconds, with barely any conscious thought, right? The same probably is true for walking around an obstacle in your path, or for performing countless other daily tasks.

These might seem like basic biomechanics, but try engineering a device that can replicate them for someone living with a disability. Blake Hanan, a first-year Ph.D. candidate in bioengineering at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), knows that what is a simple feat for some is in fact a very complex process.

Hanan works on adaptive engineering projects through an organization called Tikkun Olam Makers, an international group of engineers who design devices and technologies for people with disabilities, then upload the specs to a global database that allows them to be built anywhere in the world.

“It’s very humbling to realize I spent two days working on something as simple as holding a pen or cutting a piece of paper,” said Hanan, who’s part of the Mooney Lab at SEAS. “We really take things like that for granted.”

“Tikkun Olam'' is a Hebrew phrase and tenet of Judaism that means “repairing the world.” Tikkun Olam Makers (TOM), which is a secular organization, was founded by Harvard Kennedy School graduate Gideon Grinstein (MPA ‘02). Hanan discovered it as an undergraduate biomedical engineering student at Vanderbilt University. This fall, he started the first TOM chapter at Harvard.

“Being a Jew and an engineer, I was super excited about it,” Hanan said. “To be part of a team and work with someone with a disability and use your technical skills to help people, it makes you feel like a superhero.”

TOM projects start with a request from a “need knower,” which is either someone with a disability or an organization that frequently interacts with people with disabilities, such as a hospital or rehabilitation center. Engineering groups then take on the project, eventually uploading the completed documentation to the global database. Most TOM solutions can be 3D-printed or replicated using basic tools and materials.

“Anyone interested in getting involved in running the organization, participating as a maker, or who have an idea for a project or need we can design around, should definitely reach out,” Hanan said.

Hanan’s previous TOM projects have included a sheet of plastic molded to hold a pen for a child born without most of his fingers, and a walker that uses ultrasonic sensors and an automated braking system to help a visually impaired child walk through her school. TOM projects frequently are for children, so they often need to be adjusted and redesigned as the child grows.

“For the first month or two, we’d get pictures of that girl using the walker at school,” he said. “To be able to help people access the stuff we take for granted is huge.”

The Harvard TOM chapter is still in its infancy, but Hanan has already set some clear goals for its first year. The first step is to find people and centers in the Boston area, then start to build a list of project requests. 

“We’ll start by trying to find a project we can get people working on, and hopefully form one team of engineers to meet once a week or every other week to work on it,” Hanan said.

Finished products available on the TOM marketplace include a transparent face mask for people who rely on reading lips, a prosthetic arm attachment that can hold a bow for a violin, and a spinning dice box for people who lack the fine motor control to hold and roll rice. Each product goes through extensive design, testing, iterating and documenting — drawing on many of the skills  engineering students gain in class.

“You don’t even realize you’ve learned all this stuff until you start drawing something up in CAD, 3D printing and troubleshooting it,” he said. “It’s a direct application of the things you learn, sometimes even more so than research because you’re working directly with the end-user.”

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