A Voice for the Silent

Penn State bioengineering and premedicine student creates a simple machine that helps children with nonverbal cerebral palsy communicate.

The NCAA aims to showcase the well-rounded nature of their Division III student-athletes, who “pursue their interests and passions beyond the classroom and field of play to discover themselves,” “are encouraged to develop into well-rounded adults,” and “dedicate themselves to achieving their potential.”

If ever a Penn State Altoona student-athlete embodied those ideals, it is Mary Elizabeth McCulloch. Currently a junior at the University Park campus, Mary Elizabeth excelled in all areas during her freshman and sophomore years at Penn State Altoona, becoming one of the top women’s swimmers in Lady Lions' history. 

While most students’ volunteerism takes them to food banks, shelters, or community events, McCulloch’s endeavors took her overseas.

Dedication beyond the classroom

But McCulloch’s most impressive accomplishments lie in the field of community service. While most students’ volunteerism takes them to food banks, shelters, or community events, McCulloch’s endeavors took her overseas.

Prior to her freshman year of college at Penn State Altoona, McCulloch spent time as an exchange student in Ecuador. Upon her arrival there, she marveled at the beautiful geography, which includes parts of the Amazon rainforest and Andes mountain range, as well as the Galapagos Islands. But she also saw a contrasting side of the country: a large portion of the country’s population which was buried in poverty and despair.

In particular, McCulloch saw many special needs children whose families were unable to care for them.  As a result, some are abandoned in churches and cared for in orphanages.

McCulloch worked at one of these orphanages, where she met children with nonverbal cerebral palsy. While the children showed an extreme deficiency in motor skills, she saw a strong desire in each of them to communicate with their caregivers and visitors.

“There were fifteen kids with cerebral palsy at the orphanage where I worked, and every day it became evident that they were coherent,” McCulloch says. “They had trouble moving their muscles and getting their brains to tell their muscles what to do, but by sitting down and asking them yes or no questions, they would nod their heads yes or no, and you could learn a lot about these children just by asking a long series of these questions.”

Mary Elizabeth developed a concept for an assistive speech device that could allow children with nonverbal cerebral palsy to communicate more efficiently.

A student with a vision

By the time McCulloch returned to the United States to begin her college career at Penn State Altoona, she knew she wanted to devote herself to finding a way to improve the lives of the Ecuadoran kids she met.

“I thought that if I could make something that could ask these questions for me and let the kids be able to respond with more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ it would really help them communicate,” McCulloch recalls.

At Penn State Altoona, McCulloch—who always wanted to be a doctor— chose bioengineering and pre-medicine as her education tracks. She also joined the varsity women’s swimming team, and she quickly emerged as one of the best swimmers on the squad. Still, McCulloch did not forget about the Ecuadorian children. 

Using her knowledge of engineering and science, as well as seeking the help of various professors and her father – who himself spent two years as a student at Penn State Altoona in engineering – she developed a concept for an assistive speech device that could allow children with nonverbal cerebral palsy to communicate more efficiently.

The device would correlate different ranges of motion in the children's legs with a large bank of responses from which they could select. These responses would then be conveyed through the device back to the person who asked the question through a small speaker. As her idea gradually transitioned from the abstract to the tangible, McCulloch was eager to return to Ecuador for a trial run.

In the meantime, McCulloch credited swimming with balancing her life and putting things in perspective for her while forcing her to manage her time more efficiently.

“Swimming put structure into every day by making me set certain times to study and to do research for my device,” McCulloch explains. 

McCulloch’s focus while swimming helped her achieve big things for her team. Her two years as a swimmer at Penn State Altoona were highlighted by an Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference Women’s Swimmer of the Year honor in 2013 and winning three different events at the conference championship. She also set a new school record in the 50-meter breaststroke.

Penn State student Mary Elizabeth competing in a swimming meet

Penn State student Mary Elizabeth McCulloch competing in a swimming meet

"When you're in the pool and your body tells you that you need to breathe, you have to rise above that and keep swimming because your team is depending on you."—Mary Elizabeth McCulloch, who recognized by the Eastern College Athletic Conference as its Division III Female Scholar-Athlete of the Year

Image: Penn State

“Swimming put structure into every day by making me set certain times to study and to do research for my device.”—Mary Elizabeth McCulloch

On to University Park

After two years at Penn State Altoona, her education track took her to University Park to complete her studies. At Altoona, she posted a 3.93 grade point average. Her studies were, and continue to be, motivated by her desire to make a difference in the lives of the Ecuadoran children she met.

“I need to understand the math and physics basis for the things I want to do. I’m not just thinking about getting a grade; I really do want to go into a third world country to be an engineer and a physician,” McCulloch explains. “I need to thoroughly understand engineering, physics, and the technology related to medical devices. ”

McCulloch, who has been back to Ecuador as well as on several medical missions to the Dominican Republic though the Hershey Medical Center, credits her parents with helping to keep her focused.

“My parents are one of a kind. They have always been there to help me along the way and give me wisdom and encouragement to do my best.”

In September 2013, McCulloch was recognized by the Eastern College Athletic Conference as its Division III Female Scholar-Athlete of the Year. She won the award because of her excellence in swimming, her studies, and her volunteer work, selected over hundreds of other female student-athletes who were nominated. While McCulloch knows that her quest is far from over, she was happy to gain a little bit of encouragement along the way.

“Sometimes you’re working so hard and you don’t think people appreciate it, so it’s nice to know that someone else is saying ‘good job,’” McCulloch states. “To attend the ECAC Honors Dinner with Fredina [Ingold, director of athletics at Penn State Altoona] and receive my award really made me appreciate all of the gifts that Penn State Altoona gave me. The encouragement I received from my professors, my coach, and the whole athletics department is a testimony to Penn State Altoona.”