Research into Upper-Limb Prosthetics

Limb loss has huge implications on a person’s quality of life, especially if it’s the loss of a hand or arm. In the United States, we are fortunate enough to have a wealth of options for hand and arm prosthetics. In other countries, this is not the case. Access to affordable, functional prosthetics is limited in many developing countries – and even if accessibility was improved for amputees living in these regions, the kinds of prosthetics that we offer in the US would not be practical. This is because:

  1. They cost too much to manufacture and purchase in regions where families live on small incomes.
  2. They are not designed to hold up in humid or sandy climates, and therefore the sockets can hurt the wearer’s skin.

For several years, students in the Undergraduate Summer Research Institution at Saint Ambrose have been working on research related to prosthetics design under engineering professor Dr. Jodi Prosise. A major component of this ongoing research has been to develop a cost-effective prosthetic limb that could be worn in humid climates and manufactured with local materials. The limb had to be durable, lightweight, and breathable.


Previous groups of students have developed prototypes of a prosthetic arm using PVC, wood, and twine for a man in Brazil named Milton. Milton is a quadruple amputee who had to have both of his arms amputated above the elbow after an electrical accident. The most recent two prototypes have been sent to him to test. For this Session of USRI, we have been working on three main goals:

Our main goal has been to recreate the prosthetic limb mentioned above to use as a demonstrative model on campus. We have made the pieces of the arm and are currently assembling it. The arm has an elbow joint and comes with four end-effectors, or replacements for a hand. These include a toothbrush, a pen, a spoon, and a fork. There is also a change-out station that can be nailed to a table so that a wearer with no hands (like Milton) can change out his end-effectors independently. In total, it costs less than $50 to build. Once we have finished assembling the arm, we are going to write an instruction manual for it by combining information from two previous research reports. We plan to add a supplies list and clear step-by-step instructions. Then, we will investigate ways to construct an end effector that can do a basic grabbing motion. This could be mechanical or use a small electrical motor.

Our second goal has been to learn about EEG waves and brain-computer interfaces. EEG waves are electrical signals that can be picked up from the skin of a person’s head using electrodes. They can be displayed on a screen by an EEG machine, much like an EKG machine displays a heartbeat. There are several different kinds of EEG waves and they fluctuate based on our brain activity. A brain-computer interface, or BCI, is a piece of technology programed with software that picks up EEG waves and uses them as signals to interact with something else. The field of biomedical engineering is wrought with research studies where researchers are trying to use BCIs to decode EEG signals from our brain’s motor cortex and use those brain signals to move a mechanical hand. As for us, we learned how to use a BCI called OpenBCI to see our EEG waves on a computer screen. We attempted to develop a program that would allow us to blink and light up an LED, but we discontinued these efforts for the moment as it required a lot of programming knowledge, and none of us have a strong background in programming.

This brings us to our third goal: learning how to use a muscle sensor to move a 3-D printed hand. During our attempts to program the OpenBCI, we learned the basics of how to program a computer chip called an Arduino. We placed an order for a muscle sensor that runs on this software, and hope to write a program that will use electrical signals released from muscles when they contract (called EMG waves) to a control motor hooked up to a 3-D printed hand. The designs for the hand came from an open-source blueprint online. We would like to be able to use the EMG waves to make the 3-D printed hand open and close a grasp. This is similar to myoelectric prosthetic hands available in the US, that run on muscle sensors.


Unsteady Hyporheic Flow

Our research team is composed of students Andrew Huffman (Mathematics), Sheiny Tjia (Chemistry), and Ethan Zeller (Mechanical Engineering), with advisor is Dr. Stonedahl (Environmental Engineering). The purpose of our research is to study how unsteady water flow moves through sediment, and each student is applying their own skillset towards designing and building the experiment. If you wish to see the day-to-day progress being made on this project, you can read about it on our blog.


Design and construction

We have been working on building and designing the flow oscillator for our project. We began by completely disassembling the first try at making the flow oscillator because it leaked. Instead of having to build it again, we were able to find an aquarium store that was willing to put it together for us!  While waiting for the tank to be completed we worked out a method of holding the pressure sensors in the exact same spot every time but also being able to remove when we need to. Our idea consists of an L shaped beam where we were able to bend it to fit perfectly over our glass and have 12” inches hanging down on both sides of the glass. Having this L shape will allow us to secure to the sensor tightly with Velcro. We have also made over flow “gutters” from sheet metal and were able to silicone it to the sides of the tank where the will flow over. With that same sheet metal we designed a three part divider to separate the low head and high head of water. One part is just one long strip of metal 14” inches long, which we glued to the middle of the tank with silicone. We then made other two parts that have bends on the sides of them to allow for more surface area on the glass.  When the glass came back from the Aquarium store we found that the divider made from glass was moved over about half an inch from the 26 inches we asked for.  Fortunately this was 65 cm, so we are switch from 2 inches to 5 cm cubes.  We are now working on designing a new “sand grid maker” (which are 3D boxes we can put sand in to have it keep its shape while we put the sand in initially) that we can 3D print to be able to perfectly set the sand up.


When we started working with the pressure sensors we found out that both of the sensors were not reading the same depth all the times. So we created an experiment to have both sensors at the same level and put them in a large bucket. We then taped the ruler to them and recorded the data we found in excel.


Arduino Programming

The waterflow through the experiment is controlled with an Arduino device, called a BottleLogger v2.2.0. This device has three sensors: a temperature probe and two pressure transducers. The programs that are run on this device use the readings from these sensors to determine water density, and the length in cm of the column of water above each pressure sensor.  Using this information, we want our programs to accurately control the rise and fall of the water level on the variable side of the tank our experiment is using. The device also collects time-stamped data from the sensors in quick periods, giving us raw data for pressure and temperature.  Programming the Arduino has been a challenge because many libraries written by other programmers, which are challenging to understand and don’t seem to behave as expected.


Electrolytic Conductivity Investigation

In previous years’ experiments the EC value exiting the system never reached the value entering the system.  We decided to try to find out why.   We are devising an experiment to help understand the system better. Our early hypothesis was that the sand or the aluminum in the system might cause a change in electrolytic conductivity.  So far, however, we found that the diameter of the container had a huge effect on the reading.  What we originally measured in the big bucket, changed when we put it into different container.  So we devised an experiment in which we chose containers with a variety of diameters (some plastic and some glass) and measured the Electrolytic Conductivity of the same liquid in each container.   We found, that the reading was consistent no regardless of the material (glass or plastic) and that after hitting 7cm the diameter no longer interfered with the reading. We also looked at the fraction of the true value and the results showed that the ratio is consistent regardless of EC value of the water.


We also tested small pieces of sheet metal and the metal used to hold the sensors in place in the solution overnight to see if it will affect the EC meter.  Our initial finding is that it did not change the reading on the EC meter. Further testing is needed to make sure the sand will not absorb the salt in the water and change the outcome on the EC meter.


The St. Ambrose University 7th Annual Undergraduate Summer Research Institute is off to a Great Start!

On Monday, Jun 12, 2017, we kicked off the 2017 St. Ambrose University Undergraduate Summer Research Institute with orientation and get-to-know you activities. We have some exciting research being done this year.

Here are this year’s projects:

Dr. Susa Stonedahl: Environmental Engineering/Hydrology: Unsteady Flow of Water Through Sediments: Her group will investigate how fluctuating water levels affect the flow of water through sediments. The students will build an apparatus that allows us to vary the flow through a Tóthian system. This could simulate variations due to rainfall, tides, or other natural phenomenon that create variations in flow. They will work with Arduino’s and relatively inexpensive sensors to simulate the flow and monitor our system. They will also model the system in MATLAB coupled with MODFLOW.  They may try to get the model working independently of MODFLOW to improve the computational speed. We will use dyed water and time-lapse images to record the locations of the dye fronts over time. These will be compared with NetLogo simulations of the dye fronts.
Students working with Dr. Stonedahl include:

Dr. Jodi Prosise: Biomedical Engineering: Upper Limb Prosthetics: Several highly complex upper limb prosthetics have been developed that function much like our own arm and hand and can even be controlled utilizing electrical signals from intact nerves and muscles. However, these prosthetics are highly complex, utilizing intricate electronics and computing sources, and are cost-prohibitive both in initial investment and maintenance. There is a need for a simplified functional upper limb prosthetic that is affordable and, therefore, accessible to the underprivileged. The long-term goal of this project is to develop a simple, affordable upper limb prosthetic that functions similar to our own hand and arm. In order to better understand how humans control their hand movements, in this first phase, students will be studying neural recordings from electro-encephalograms (EEG) of humans reaching to and grasping a set of objects designed to create a large range of joint angles and comparing it to data previously collected in monkeys. The goal is to then create a simplified control algorithm for a electro-mechanical prosthetic that will function much like a normal hand.

Students working with Dr. Prosise include:

Dr. Katie Trujillo: Psychology: The Impact of Therapy Dogs on Stress : This is a continuation of last year’s project. The main purpose of the current study is to determine whether therapy dogs can reduce the stress levels of family members of surgical or cardiac patients (they share a waiting room at Genesis East) while they are waiting for him/her to be done with their surgery or procedure. If it does, then the therapy dogs could be scheduled to visit waiting rooms in addition to patient rooms.
Secondary purposes include determining if physiological measures of stress are useful in this context. Physiological measures—in this case pulse rate—can indicate the level of a person’s anxiety. The advantage of using pulse rate over self-report measures is that it is quick and easy. However pulse rate can be influenced by factors other than anxiety including the individual’s current level of activity and caffeine consumption. Therefore it’s possible that well-established self-report measures may be more reliable than pulse rate. Self-report measures take longer to complete, so it is useful to explore the value of both types of measures. A final purpose is to determine if general attitudes towards pets play a role in determining how effective therapy dogs are in reducing stress. If attitudes towards pets do play a role in determining how effective therapy dogs are in reducing stress, then some people may benefit more from therapy dog visits than others.
The hypothesis is that immediate family members of patients who are waiting for their loved ones to be done with surgery or a cardiac procedure will experience lowered stress levels as a result of interacting with a therapy dog.

Dr. Joe Hebert: Political Science: Political Philosophy and the Transformation of the Polis This project will consider the role of the Greek polis—the concept and the thing—in shaping the conditions of human life; as well as the transformation of the polis in response to both experience and philosophical critique. Through a study of Pierre Manent’s Metamorphoses of the City, we will consider the ancient polis in light of its relation to poetry and philosophy; the development of the city in Roman empire, law, and philosophy; the effects of Christianity and modern philosophy on the advent of the modern state; and key developments in the resulting modern nation-state system. Students will work with Dr. Hebert on a critical analysis of Manent’s claims and analysis of relevant individual research questions utilizing relevant primary and secondary sources.

Students working with Dr. Hebert include:

Presentation Day!

On Friday, July 22, the students involved in the summer research institute presented the results of their research. In all cases, the students reported they had made progress toward understanding the phenomenon they were studying. They also concluded that more research was needed to make more definite conclusions. Although it is exciting when huge break-throughs are made, most scientific research is a series of small steps toward understanding. And most science involves missteps and mistakes before big (or little) discoveries are made. As a faculty mentor, it is rewarding to see undergraduate students immersed in real research, and we are all proud of what our students accomplished! Signing off until next year.

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The “Selfie” Effect: Social Media Feedback on Stress, Physiology, Mood, and Memoryselfie woman


In today’s society, it is not hard to run into someone that has some sort of social media account. Whether it is Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook, more and more people are caving into the social phenomenon. With all of the interactions that are happening among users, our research group wondered how this positive and negative feedback that is appearing on a phone or computer screen might be affecting a person’s overall well being. We decided to test our hypothesis stating that “people who receive negative social media feedback will exhibit higher anxiety levels, display poor self-esteem, have impaired memory, increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and cortisol levels” in a very unique way.

The population of our study consisted of 24 participants from the St. Ambrose community ranging from ages 19-63. We chose to use the popular social media site “Instagram” as our platform to induce stress on our participants. Participants were asked to send a selfie of themselves to our email account that they really liked and thought best represent their personality. When they came into the lab, the research assistant would take the participant’s heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels through a saliva sample. Next, there would be a 30 minute delay. During this delay, participants were to complete a personality inventory and read two articles related to selfies. Before the research assistant would leave the room, they would inform the participant that they would be posting their selfie that they submitted to our private Instagram account. We told them that 40 undergraduate St. Ambrose University students would be looking at their photo and “liking” or not liking their photo. In reality, our research team would randomly assign the participant to the high-like group or the low-like group. The high-like group would get 38 likes photo-shopped under their photo and the low-like group would get 2 likes photo-shopped under theirs. No one was actually looking at the photo, and we were personally manipulating the likes. After the 30 minute delay, the assistant would return to the room and visually show the participant their selfie feedback (i.e. the number of likes). We then asked the participant to write a reflection on why they think they received the number of likes that they did. The participant’s heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels were taken a second time. We finished by giving them self-esteem, anxiety, and memory tests to complete.

Though this topic is often overlooked, it is important for people to realize that social media can play a role in a person’s overall well being. Our study is unique in that it is the first experiment (to our knowledge) to manipulate a social media platform such as Instagram. We are looking forward to sharing our results on Friday!

Student Researchers: Alexandra Brown, Ann Froeschle, Bayley Keys, Abigail Landrum

Faculty Mentors: Dr. Shyam Seetharaman, Dr. Jennifer Whitmer

Dioxane and the chemistry group

You can only imagine the hundreds of thousands of chemicals that we are exposed to in everyday life. You might be surprised to find out that not all of the chemicals found in your shampoos, cosmetics or even water bottles are listed on the bottle. This is because there are impurities from the byproducts of certain goods that can be found in small amounts. One of these impurities is a compound called 1,4 dioxane. Dioxane is a suspected carcinogen with many other short and long term effects from exposure. The goal of our experiment is to develop a method of measuring 1,4 dioxane that does not take as long as using the GC/MS. We will compare the quantitative abilities of cyclic voltammetry to GC/MS.

chem pic 1

The GC/MS takes about thirty minutes to run a single sample. As you can see this is why we would like to find a method that takes less time. So far, we have established a method and an Rf value for using the GC/MS. The method includes an internal standard, a surrogate standard and a sample. The internal standard is composed of deuterated tetrahydrofuran (THF) and it is used to standardize our injections and obtain the Rf value. The Rf value is obtained from a linear trend line of known concentrations and areas and used as our “ruler” as you could say to predict the concentrations of the samples once we know the areas of the peaks from the chromatogram. The surrogate standard is made from 1,4 dioxane-d8 and will soon be used to quantify the % return that we obtain from solid phase extraction. After we find the percent return we could like to start running samples from consumer products.


When using cyclic voltammetry a voltage can be applied to a solution causing the compound with in the solution to undergo a redox reaction.  If a voltage is applied to 1,4 dioxane the electrons will separate from the compound and enter the circuit causing an increase in current.  If the concentration of dioxane increases, the more available species there are to lose electrons.  Therefore, as the concentration of the species increases the current will increase as well.  Trends correlating concentration in relation to the measured current can then be applied to unknown concentrations.  Using this technique, a practical methodology should be able to be developed to accurately measure concentration of dioxane within the environment and consumer products.  Our team is currently experimenting on a variety of methods to optimize the analysis of 1,4 dioxane using cyclic voltammetry.


Have you met my therapist?

Hope and Dog therapy team - 1

The Dog Therapy Research Team poses with Hope the Therapy Dog.

This year’s therapy dog research team just started collecting data with the help of some furry, four-legged therapists. “Therapy Dogs” are usually someone’s pet, and their owner recognized the characteristics in their pet that make a good therapy dog. These characteristics include being drawn to people, enjoying petting, listening to their owners, and being calm. Many hospitals now have formal therapy dog programs, and therapy dog teams regularly visit patients. Dogs, and other animals, can have a calming effect on people, and this can be especially beneficial in environments known to cause stress. But rather than focus on a dog’s ability to calm patients, this year’s research aims to discover the impact of a therapy dog visit on the family members of patients having surgery or a cardiac procedure. Waiting to hear news from the doctor about a loved one can be stressful, and therapy dogs don’t always visit waiting rooms. Our study is designed to examine whether therapy dogs can reduce stress in the family members of patients who are having surgery. So far Hope, the therapy dog pictured above, along with Harley, Suki-Sue, and Polar (and their owner-handlers) have done a great job partnering with Payton, Jada, Hope (the human), and Philip at Genesis East. Hopefully we will have data from 15-20 participants by the end of the institute. The biggest advantage of doing research on therapy dogs, is being able to get a dose of dog therapy at the beginning and end of each trip to the hospital!