Helping Children Up From Their Wheelchairs: Meet Megan Damcott

Innovation at NJIT: Biomed Student Designs Device to Help Wheel-Chair-Bound Children

Megan Damcott is working to help children who, either due to injury or illness, spend their days confined to beds and wheelchairs. Sitting and lying all day takes a toll on these children. Their brittle bones often fracture and they commonly develop osteoporosis.

Megan, a master’s student in biomedical engineering, is designing a standing device to help the children. The stander, programmed to move the children’s feet up and down, will strengthen their bones and improve their health.

Megan is designing the stander in partnership with the Children's Specialized Hospital, in Mountainside, N.J. Children who live at the hospital will use her stander during their physical therapy.

“It gets emotional at times working with these children,” says Megan, “because no matter how hard I try I know I can’t make them walk. But knowing I’m improving their quality of life and possibly reducing the number of fractures and dislocations they’ll suffer – that, in my mind makes my research worthwhile. These children cannot vocalize their emotions and their pain, but you can tell by their expressions how they are feeling. And my research has the potential to add more smiles to their faces.”

In the below interview, Megan talks about biomedical engineering, her research, and how her innovative standing device might one day launch a thousand smiles.  

Can you describe your standing device?
Currently the children at the hospital use passive standers as part of their physical therapy. The children usually have spinal or brain injuries or cerebral palsy. They are placed in the standers, whose high backs support them. The standers look like the backboards that EMTs use. The standers have flat plates across the bottoms of the boards for the children to stand on. Just standing helps increases their bone density. But I’m designing a stander that will help the children move their feet. Research has shown that the stresses that our muscles and bones feel when we stand and walk improves our bone density. My stander uses pneumatic actuators programmed to move the children’s feet up and down -- mimicking walking. The alternating pressure on the children’s legs will strengthen their bone density and decrease their chances of developing osteoporosis and joint dislocations.

Is there a chance your standing device will be commercialized and used in hospitals?
There’s a chance that the standing device will be commercialized. If the results of the studies show that my dynamic stander is better than the passive one, the biomedical engineering department will try to commercialize it. The stander company we’ve been working with is excited about our research and is willing to incorporate our modifications.

Many women choose biomedical engineering because they like to help people. Is that true for you?
That is very true for me. I actually chose biomedical engineering after I learned I could help patients, and that I wouldn’t be stuck in a lab all day designing equipment. To help the children I’m now designing the stander for, I have to interact with them. So for my research project on the stander, I’ll spend a lot of time at Children’s Specialized Hospital, which I really enjoy.

How did first get interested in biomedical engineering?
I grew up in Sherman, N.Y., and did my undergraduate work at the University of Rochester. I was interested in both architectural design and medicine, and I entered Rochester thinking I’d graduate and attend medical school. But I found out about its biomedical engineering program, which combines aspects of design and medicine. So I switched my major there to biomedical engineering, and then came to NJIT for my master’s degree.

What do you like best about biomedical engineering?
The aspect of biomedical engineering that I love is the rehabilitative equipment and assistive technology. I’m able to not only build and modify equipment, but also work in the clinical setting and interact with patients who I am modifying equipment for. Seeing the ‘before and after’ of my work with these patients, and being able to interact with them and come up with solutions for them, so that they may perform their daily activities is what I enjoy. I have learned that many of us, including me, take for granted all the capabilities we have that get us through our daily lives with relative ease. I love working with people to help make their lives easier and to improve their quality of life.

Why did you choose to do your master’s degree at NJIT?
I chose NJIT because the faculty was very sincere and have a contagious excitement for their research and work. They were also very helpful and made me feel like a part of the department before I had committed to coming. Their help and open arms were a large draw to the department. I’m doing my research, for instance, under the direction of Professor Richard Foulds, who is directing my research project. The Biomedical Engineering Department here also has a wide variety of research opportunities, especially in the area of rehabilitation engineering, which was the major draw for me. Between the research opportunities and the staff and students, NJIT has been a perfect fit for me.

How much time do you spend in class, versus time in the lab working on your device?
I would have to say I spend more time working in the lab and the hospital than I do in classes. Between the prototyping, obtaining approval to do studies on patients, obtaining permission from the children and parents to participate in our study and the actual therapy sessions, my research is pretty much a full-time job. And it’s a job I love. 

What do you plan to do after you get your master's degree?
I’ll stay at NJIT and begin my doctoral degree in the spring. After that, I plan on working in rehabilitation engineering, either in research or equipment modification. I like research because it encompasses all aspects of the field and I get to work with engineers, doctors, therapists and patients. It is a diverse field and I like that aspect of it. I’d also like to work in an academic setting, where I’d get to teach biomedical engineering students, share my knowledge with them and give them the good experience I’m having here.

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)