A mission to complete
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.”