Feature Stories Campus Events All Stories

In Depth: Science, Society and the Arts

Science, Society, and the Arts is a multi-disciplinary conference involving Washington and Lee undergraduates and law students in the presentation of their academic achievements before an audience of their peers and the faculty. Conference participants share their work via oral presentations, traditional academic conference-style panels, poster sessions, artistic shows, or creative performances.

In the weeks leading up to the conference on March 12-13, we will profile a few of the projects being presented by students.

Briefly describe your research project.

Alessandra & Eleanor: This research project took place in Ahuachapan, El Salvador. The purpose was to create prosthetic arms for amputees using a 3D printer and orthoplastic. The hand has the ability to grasp items when the amputee closes his or her elbow. It is made with Orthoplastic (thermoplastic), which is moldable, breathable, washable and medically approved for this type of use. It is custom molded to the wearer to limit the possibility of skin lesions, infection and injury, which adds to the amputee’s comfort. Due to the lack of a standard model, much of our process was through trial and error

What about this project called you to exploration?

Alessandra: I have always been called to service. In high school, I earned my Girl Scout Gold Award and have continued my service here in Lexington by being on the leadership team for Nabor’s Service League and volunteering at the local hospital. When the opportunity came to go to El Salvador, I didn’t think twice. Being able to incorporate my love for service and my passion for medicine and research, this project was perfect. It allowed me to learn about the emotional demands and challenges that the medical profession presents that the classroom cannot measure.

Eleanor: I think many aspects of this project called me to exploration: the challenge of being in a small student group charged with creating our own model, the opportunity to gain insights into what we classify as a “third-world” country, the incredibly fulfilling chance to establish relations between countries by sharing new knowledge and resources, and, of course, the medical and psychological aid we could provide to members of the community–not just during the time we were there, but long-term as well.

What was the most interesting thing you learned while working in this subject matter?

Alessandra: Through these experiences, I have learned how to adapt to a changing environment and how to thrive in unfamiliar situations. Being a first generation American from Italian-born parents, I have been exposed to much of the Italian culture, but I had never spent an extended period of time in another country with little prior knowledge of the language or customs. These experiences have enhanced my ability to relate to people from other backgrounds as well as broadened my understanding of those cultures.

Eleanor: The most interesting thing that I learned was how to utilize knowledge from a wide array of fields in order to accomplish a task. We had to incorporate psychology, biology, engineering, computer science and business to produce the hands for this project. The project called for a great deal of integration disciplines, and it simply would not have been possible if one area were left out. I gained a great deal of understanding for how fields must function together to be successful in goals that may at first appear to fall under the realm of only one discipline.

What was the biggest challenge in completing this project?

Alessandra: The biggest challenge was accepting failure. With no manual regarding how to create an arm with 3D printed materials, a majority of the process was trial and error. Using varying nail sizes, sanding different parts of the hand to accommodate the pieces, and trying many different motion strings, we thought we would be able to give José his full and functional arm by Thursday. When we arrived in the clinic early Thursday morning, we had high aspirations for our final product. As we put the molded orthoplastic with attached hand and accessories onto José, we were overjoyed at how perfectly it fit. The final step was to position the elbow that would allow the open hand to close so that it could grab items. “José, puede mover su brazo para cerrar la mano?” As he was about to move his elbow in the motion that would allow finger movement, the room was dead silent with anticipation. To our disbelief the hand didn’t close. We took the arm back home and tirelessly worked until we finally had a working model. The next day, José left with a functional arm, something he hadn’t had in over 20 years.

Eleanor: The biggest challenge in completing this project was learning how to work with failures. Every hand we created was different, which meant that with each hand there was a great deal of trial and error involved. That first week was especially frustrating as we created our first model and fitted it to our first patient, José. We spent a great deal of time positioning and re-positioning the pieces, molding and re-molding the orthoplastic, and tying and re-tying the strings to get everything in working order. It was a full week of coming up with ideas only to find that most of them did not create a model that would work the way José needed. We had to learn to reconstruct our feelings of discouragement into feelings of motivation, and use our failures as a launch pad for improved ideas. This process was incredibly disheartening at times due to the great number of failures we faced before we were successful in creating a model, but I think we were able to gain a lot of insight from this challenge.

What insight(s) did you gain from creating this project?

Alessandra: I gained many insights through being involved in this project, specifically the dual importance of communication and critical thinking. Communication and collaboration was key in order to create a successful robo-arm. Working in a group, I was able to incorporate both my academic and personal skills to contribute to the final product. This outside the classroom experience is invaluable to both my educational and personal life. Critical thinking was equally as important. Other people relied on us to deliver a perfectly fit, moveable robo-arm in order to improve their quality of life. It was up to us to deliver a final product and we would have not been successful if we did not think outside the box and use all of the group’s ideas, we would not have been able to produce such a successful project.

Eleanor: Through this project I was able to learn a lot about working as a team and about how to work under great pressures. This was not a classroom activity where the assignment was laid out for you, and if you did not complete it correctly you could still pass. We were creating this model on our own, with minimal knowledge of existing models to draw from. If we did not complete this task perfectly, or if we did not complete it at all, it was not a professor we had to answer to. The stakes were much higher, because we were going to greatly disappoint someone who had put their faith in us, someone who was depending on us. Our patients believed we could deliver a hand that would improve their quality of life, and if we could not, it was unlikely they would be given that chance again. To me that added a great deal of pressure to the project, especially given that we also wanted to produce these hands at a decently rapid pace, but this project bolstered my self-confidence in my ability to work under intense pressure in a real-world scenario.

What was your favorite part of creating this project?

Alessandra: My favorite part of this project was being able to change the lives of others. José was our first patient and my biggest inspiration. Working in a coffee plantation, José was hit with a machete 17 times by armed thieves who had left him to die. Through this experience, José lost his right arm and left ring finger. Inspired by his story and his strength, it reminded me why I came to El Salvador in the first place. José not only left the clinic with a new arm, but also a new life that helped him regain his independence and return to full-time work. It was success stories such as these that made me smile at the end of every day. We truly impacted the lives of others with our project that resulted with our collaborative effort and inspiration.

Eleanor: This project was moving in so many ways, but I think my favorite part I only recognized towards the end of my time in El Salvador. Even as we were working on more hands for new patients, we were still having continuous check-ups with our earlier patients. I had been so worried when we began this project that the hands would fall apart or have no true impact on our patients’ lives, but over the course of our time in El Salvador, these check-ups revealed how much our El Salvadorian patients had evolved. For example, our patient Urania came back after just her first weekend with the hand, and already she had learned to manipulate her new hand in a number of functional ways. She could pick up objects and she could throw a ball to us, but more importantly, she was also constantly smiling. When we had met her she was shy and rarely smiled, and now she was confident and beaming. She even started working with the new patients to help them learn how to use their new hands as well! Since returning, we also heard that she was able to find work again because of her new hand. Witnessing these incredible transformations in the lives of our patients was absolutely inspirational, not just because of our work, but because of theirs as well. I think that was my favorite part about this project: the vast leaps in life quality that were truly the result of the combined efforts of everyone involved.

Why would this project interest someone outside of your field?

Alessandra and Eleanor: Lend a Hand was a unique project in that it incorporated a number of disciplines. We had a biology major, a neuroscience major, a psychology major and an engineering major all working together to create an accessible and useful prosthetic. The project drew on all these fields to understand not only the authenticity and functionality of the hand, but also the resulting mental and physical life changes of this model. In addition to the more scientific disciplines involved, areas like language, business and computer science were all instrumental as well. This project drew heavily on these fields for working with patients and making the model more accessible, for ensuring cost-effectiveness of the model and for actually creating the necessary pieces, respectively. Upon returning, we have now even begun to incorporate marketing–we have established a blog and tried to develop a system for fundraising to continue the project. Lend a Hand is a project that fused many disciplines, but that’s the beauty of coming form a liberal arts university: it gave us the wide background we needed to fully tackle this project and come out successful.

In your mind, what is the value of considering science, society and the arts in the same context?

Alessandra and Eleanor: Each of these fields has students who have worked long nights and days in order to complete an academic endeavor. They all require serious effort and creativity in order to achieve quality work. Through SSA, students have the opportunity to truly appreciate the value of other fields. These fields inspire one another to share ideas and demonstrate that what you learn in the classroom is applicable to all aspects of a person’s life. We know that we have personally benefitted from other SSA projects throughout our years at Washington and Lee!