In the Wake of Her Roommate's Death, She Found Her Life's Mission

Madeline Corrigan (left) with her late roommate, Aubrey Olson.

Madeline Corrigan found her passion in life under the saddest of circumstances.

While a sophomore at the University of Minnesota, Madeline was placed in a dorm with a student who had a neuromuscular disorder akin to Muscular Dystrophy. Her name was Aubrey Olson and, though confined to a wheelchair, she had a high-spirited zest for life.

Madeline and Aubrey became best friends. During their senior year, they took an off-campus apartment together. As graduation neared, things were going well for both of them. But then Aubrey’s health took a turn for the worse. Her disorder was degenerative; complications set in and by year’s end -- she was dead.

Madeline was devastated yet inspired -- motivated to help people like Aubrey. After she graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2010, she found her way to NJIT’s Biomedical Engineering Department. She’s now a doctoral student here, working on research that improves the range of motion for people with neuromuscular problems such as Muscular Dystrophy. Her project is supported by the Gustavus and Louise Pfeiffer Research Foundation.

What follows is Madeline’s story: how she found NJIT, how she sought inspiration from her late roommate, and how she intends to devote her life to improving the quality of life for people like Aubrey.     

How did you get interested in helping people with Muscular Dystrophy?

About 10 years ago, I volunteered for my first time at the Muscular Dystrophy Association summer camp in Minnesota, a week-long camp providing adapted activities for children with muscular dystrophy.  That summer I fell in love with a cause and a community of people. In doing so, camp sparked an interest in me to pursue biomedical engineering as my undergraduate major.

Talk about your college experience.

As chance would have it, during my sophomore year at the University of Minnesota, I entered into university housing and was randomly paired with a roommate who just so happened to be a former camper -- a woman I knew of but had never formally met.

And what was your relationship with her like?

Aubrey had a neuromuscular disease and as a result used a power wheelchair for mobility and needed a personal care attendant to help her with the many activities of daily living.  Because I had a background working as a personal care assistant, I began working for her. But more importantly we became fast friends.  Aubrey was a pistol; she was pursuing a degree and a career but also knew how to have a good time -- and boy did we have some good times!

But the good times didn’t last.

During our last year as undergraduate students at the University of Minnesota, we lived in an apartment off campus together.  She met with some untimely complications, though, and passed away at the end of that year.

What affect did her death have on you?

She was my roommate and my best friend, but on a broader scale she was a go-getter.  She lived life fully, had many goals that she was working towards, and was independent in so many ways.  She had the ability to pursue life with such resolve and to live each day with gusto, despite her physical challenges. She instilled in me a desire to help people with neuromuscular diseases -- to help them  deal with their physical limitations in a more manageable way so that they can live more independently.  It would be my hope that in doing so they can instead put those energies toward pursuing life instead of toward managing disease.

How did you become a grad student at NJIT?

I had read online about NJIT’s biomedical engineering department and had contacted Professor Max Roman, expressing my interest in the master’s program.  I was interested in seeing what the program was like, but I wasn't 100% sure I wanted to go back to school, much less pick up and move out East to do so.  But, as luck had it, Professor Roman saw how my career and educational interests paralleled the work that Professor Foulds was doing in biomechanics, and he walked me down to see if Professor Foulds was in his office and had a minute to talk to me.

And how did that go?

After talking with Professor Foulds for an hour -- not a minute -- and seeing his passion for his field, I was hooked.  Even more, I was lucky enough to have impressed him on some level, because he sent me an e-mail after my visit wondering if, assuming I enrolled at NJIT, I was interested in working on a project under his direction -- one that involved developing a robotic assistive device specifically for people with muscular dystrophy.  It was amazing.

What stage of graduate studies are you in now?

This past spring (2013) I completed my master’s thesis, which was entitled “Admittance Control of the Intelligent Assist Robot Manipulator for People with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.” I am lucky to have the opportunity to be continuing  this research as I pursue my Ph.D.

Can you describe that research?

I’m developing an interface control for a grasping robot that will be mounted on wheelchairs. The interface will help people who have muscular dystrophy to gain more mobility. That will in turn improve the quality of their lives.  The interface provides the user with assistance against gravity.  The idea is that someone with deteriorating muscle strength will have an increased active range of motion when their arms are supported against gravity.  And this can be used to their advantage to control the motion of a reaching and grasping robot, which they can use to perform daily tasks.

So something from your personal life (summer camp) became part of your professional life as well as your life's passion.

I feel dedicated to the cause of helping improve the lives of people with muscular dystrophy.  My life has unfolded toward this goal, which has made me all the more passionate about this research.  I feel so fortunate to have met a woman who was not only an amazing friend but an inspiration for my work.  And, I continue to be motivated by this cause as I continue to fly home every June; there is no chance I’d miss a summer with the kids at the Muscular Dystrophy Association camp.

By Robert Florida