NSF fellowship sets mechanical engineering student's research in motion

Claire Rodman studies mobility issues to improve wearable robotics for stroke, cerebral palsy patients

Claire Rodman works in the Gait Optimization (GO) Lab. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Claire Rodman, a doctoral student in the Penn State Department of Mechanical Engineering, received a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship, recognizing her potential for significant research achievements.

“I knew I wanted to help people,” Rodman said. “Engineering was the perfect option to focus on problem solving in a way that very directly relates to human problems.”

Now as a graduate student, she fulfills that purpose by working with Anne Martin, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, in the Gait Optimization Lab.

Bolstered by the new fellowship, Rodman’s work centers on creating computational models of biomechanical systems, which one day could be used to address mobility issues in children with cerebral palsy and in patients who have experienced strokes or spinal cord injuries. While her current work is with subjects without mobility issues, equipped with the knowledge gleaned from these simulations, the assistive robotics designed to improve impaired patients’ movement could be greatly enhanced. 

“It’s important to have predictive models of their gaits because the control strategy of a robotic exoskeleton will be different depending on the condition,” Rodman explained.

For cerebral palsy, a robotic exoskeleton, a wearable device that helps enable movement, may help correct posture, while the same exoskeleton used for stroke rehabilitation could instead be used to retrain and strengthen patients’ muscles. She explained, “You wouldn’t want the robotics to compensate for all the loss of control because it’s helpful for them to regain that ability themselves.”

She added, “That’s the advantage of creating these simulations, you can see how different control strategies affect different purposes.”

Through the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, Rodman is able to pursue the research she is passionate about and can also spearhead outreach initiatives to improve representation in STEM. During her graduate studies, she plans to implement outreach programs for local K-12 students to get them excited about the applications of engineering.

“Kids tend to think it’s just about math and science. But there are a lot of things that go into being a good engineer, especially problem solving and creativity,” said Rodman.

By bringing her locomotion and exoskeleton projects into the classroom, she hopes to spark an interest in engineering that will inspire students, particularly from underrepresented groups, to explore the field.

“When I was young, I had lots of people telling me engineering was an option for me. I want to pay it forward and pass on that message to people who maybe haven’t heard it before,” she said. “It won’t be easy to balance the scales. But giving more people the opportunity [to work in STEM] will really help with the diversity of thought.”

Like the people she hopes to help with her research, Rodman is eager to gain momentum. After graduation, she plans to work in the private sector, researching and developing new technologies with health and space applications.

“This fellowship will open a lot of doors for me because it lets me work on projects I care about and build a versatile skill set to prepare for that,” Rodman said.

Last Updated May 06, 2019