A mis­sion to com­plete

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NEWS -

that en­cour­ages mem­bers of his­tor­i­cally un­der­rep­re­sented groups to take part and thrive in STEM stud­ies.

When her hand grew too weak to hold a pen­cil, math pro­fes­sor Mud­dappa Gowda showed her an app on which to type math­e­mat­i­cal no­ta­tions. When get­ting to cam­pus be­came too hard, com­puter science pro­fes­sor Charles Ni­cholas gave her the idea of at­tend­ing classes vir­tu­ally, by Skype.

“Dr. Ni­cholas helped me bridge the phys­i­cal gap be­tween home and col­lege and gave me the con­fi­dence to adapt to new chal­lenges,” she says.

Her strength fad­ing, Krishnaswamy main­tained a 4.0 grade-point av­er­age as a math-com­puter science dou­ble ma­jor. And she sought out a niche of her own. ac­ces­si­ble de­vices. She has in­vented 10 so far. Sev­eral fo­cus on ways of lift­ing or mov­ing the body or limbs, a nec­es­sary el­e­ment of health main­te­nance — and one for which peo­ple with se­vere dis­abil­i­ties typ­i­cally de­pend on care­givers.

Many such peo­ple use spe­cial­ized air mat­tresses to soften the pres­sure that can lead to bed­sores, but cur­rent mod­els re­quire a care­giver to pump them up.

She de­vised and tested a sim­u­lated mat­tress whose nine cham­bers she can in­flate or de­flate by track­ball or voice com­mand.

UMBC en­gi­neer­ing stu­dents have built a minia­ture ver­sion to her specs, and Krishnaswamy and Oates say the team will have a full-size ver­sion up and run­ning within six months.

For her doc­toral project, Krishnaswamy is work­ing with Maya Cak­mak, a com­puter science pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Washington who spe­cial­izes in hu­man­robotic in­ter­ac­tion.

They are de­vel­op­ing low-fi­delity in­ter­faces that con­trol the PR2, a two-armed, multi-func­tional ro­bot de­signed by Suit­able Tech­nolo­gies, the Seat­tle firm that in­vented and mar­kets the Beam. The PR2 can help peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties re­po­si­tion their arms or legs, feed them­selves and brush their teeth.

Their goal is to help those with lit­tle or di­min­ish­ing strength to con­trol the PR2 us­ing only a mouse or voice com­mand.

Krishnaswamy de­scribed the work in her ap­pli­ca­tions for the 2017-2018 Mi­crosoft and Google Lime fel­low­ships.

The Mi­crosoft award sup­ports re­search by “out­stand­ing ad­vanced doc­toral stu­dents in STEM.”

The Google Lime award sup­ports re­searchers with dis­abil­i­ties whose work is likely to dis­pel stereo­types about dis­abil­ity.

Twelve of about 200 ap­pli­cants won the Mi­crosoft award. Thir­teen of 342 ap­pli­cants won the Google schol­ar­ship.

The Google honor came with an in­vi­ta­tion to the an­nual re­treat for awardees at the Google­plex, the tech gi­ant’s sprawl­ing Moun­tain View, Calif., head­quar­ters.

Krishnaswamy was the first to at­tend by way of broad­cast­ing ro­bot.

Krishnaswamy’s per­son­al­ity comes across as so un­remit­tingly pos­i­tive it can be easy to for­get the sever­ity of her chal­lenges.

Oates was speak­ing to her via Skype one day when he saw a mosquito land on her arm and be­gin bit­ing her.

Her par­ents were out in the yard. No mem­bers of her ro­tat­ing team of backup care­givers were on hand.

“Here we are talk­ing about her work, and she’s try­ing her best to blow this mosquito off her,” Oates says. “Her mind is in­cred­i­ble, and she’s so un­be­liev­ably driven, but her body won’t do any­thing she wants it to do. All she wants is in­de­pen­dence.”

She gains a sur­pris­ing amount through the Beam, which she can guide via the in­ter­net from her bed­room in Howard County.

Krishnaswamy can roll it for­ward or back­ward, con­trol its two for­ward-fac­ing cam­eras, ad­just the vol­ume of its mi­cro­phones and speak­ers and even ad­just its on­board ther­mo­stat with sim­ple move­ments of her in­dex fin­ger on a track­ball.

She ex­plains its work­ings so well that Suit­able Tech­nolo­gies has made her an am­bas­sador, pro­vid­ing her with one she has kept at UMBC since 2015 and ac­cess to scores of oth­ers around the world.

She has used them to at­tend robotics events in places as dis­tant as Canada, Aus­tria and In­dia.

“That was the one thing that was miss­ing,” says Tull, the UMBC vice provost. “It’s as if the Beam has given Kavita legs. Now she’s able not just to be a speaker and to give talks, but to con­nect with oth­ers in her field. They don’t just talk with her; they hud­dle around the ro­bot at con­fer­ences and give it hugs.” But her days of us­ing it could be lim­ited. No one knows how long an SMA pa­tient will live — its pro­gres­sion is grad­ual yet steady through­out the course of life — but Krishnaswamy’s case is so ad­vanced that any fur­ther mus­cle loss could jeop­ar­dize the min­i­mal mo­bil­ity she has, and ul­ti­mately her abil­ity to breathe.

Craw­ford says only three of the sev­eral hun­dred pa­tients with Kr­ishaswamy’s SMA type that he has treated have died while in his care, but the old­est he’s aware of is 53.

SMA pa­tients and their fam­i­lies got good news last De­cem­ber when the FDA ap­proved the first ther­apy for the dis­ease, a drug de­vel­oped by Bio­gen Inc. known as Spin­raza.

Ap­proved for all types and stages of SMA, the drug of­fers no cure, but clin­i­cal tri­als have shown it can slow the pro­gres­sion of the dis­ease and en­able those treated early to meet mo­tor mile­stones, in­clud­ing head con­trol, crawl­ing and stand­ing.

“It works spec­tac­u­larly in pre­serv­ing what you do have,” says Craw­ford, the Hop­kins spe­cial­ist.

But it costs $125,000 per in­jec­tion for five or six in­jec­tions in the first year, a to­tal of up to $750,000. Af­ter the first year, there are 3 doses per year, at a cost of $375,000 an­nu­ally. Man­dates for cov­er­age within the in­sur­ance, state gov­ern­ment and health­care bu­reau­cra­cies are just com­ing into fo­cus.

Johns Hop­kins, a pi­o­neer in the emerg­ing field, is one of the hand­ful of hos­pi­tals in the re­gion to of­fer the treat­ment. But be­cause its early clin­i­cal tri­als fo­cused on the use of the drug for chil­dren, the fa­cil­ity is just now de­vel­op­ing a pro­gram to of­fer it to pa­tients of all ages.

That could prove a life­line for Krishnaswamy, who is too weak to travel any­where but Hop­kins for the treat­ment.

Krishnaswamy con­fesses to mo­ments of stress and anx­i­ety, but says know­ing her own pur­pose keeps her look­ing for­ward to a long and pro­duc­tive ca­reer in robotics re­search, ei­ther in a univer­sity set­ting or in pri­vate in­dus­try.

“I think we are all born with a mis­sion to com­plete in life,” she says. “If we find that, we can pur­sue it and have pas­sion in life pur­su­ing it. I be­lieve God has given me this mis­sion to bring this ac­ces­si­bil­ity of robotics.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.