Minds Over Matter
Page 2 of 4

On a rainy Tuesday in May, Samuelson sits in his wheelchair surrounded by the electrical and computer engineering team—plus Tibbany Black '05, '08G, a graduate student in communication sciences and disorders who has volunteered to help. "Whenever you're ready, give us a good squeeze. Give us a dot," says Rappa. Samuelson clenches his left hand, which is encased in a white batting glove, with a thin, flexible piece of metal in one finger. The new glove seems to be serving better than an earlier golfing-glove prototype. A tiny electrical current, undetectable to Samuelson, flows through the metal strip, producing measurable changes in resistance as his finger bends. A wire connects the glove to an audio trainer, an electrical circuit inside a small black box held by Minuti, whose T-shirt proclaims, Obey gravity, it's the law!

When the box beeps, the squeeze has been strong enough to produce a digital on/off signal that could be converted into a Morse code dash or dot. "We're trying to get the threshold," Rappa explains to Samuelson. Once the threshold is set for differentiating an intentional squeeze from an involuntary spasm, he will be given the trainer to practice with at home.

Over the past few months, Minuti has been working on two circuits—one to run the trainer and the other to send signals to an interface device, which Rappa has programmed to run a computer with Morse code. Meanwhile, Samuelson has spent time at his Hampton, N.H., home studying Morse code in his least uncomfortable position, flat on his back, looking at a chart his father has tacked to his bedroom ceiling.

By the end of the hour, everyone agrees that the trainer box is ready to go home with Samuelson. Now his homework assignment is to practice squeezing his hand in the glove, creating a long, loud beep whenever he succeeds.

"You can put it on and annoy people all day long," teases Rappa.

"And annoy your old man all night long," adds LaCourse.

"And all the way to Laconia tomorrow," says Samuelson's personal assistant as she wheels him out of the room to "go check out the girls" before heading home.

In 1771, Luigi Galvani observed that a spark could cause a muscle twitch in a dead frog's leg, a discovery that sparked humankind's awareness of the electrical basis of life. Rappa came to his own understanding of electricity and movement in high school after an automobile accident nearly paralyzed him. Recovering from a broken neck, he spent a lot of time at home in a cervical collar, and one day he watched a "Ripley's Believe It or Not" program about researchers in France who had helped a man walk for the first time in 10 years. Paralyzed in a car accident, his legs had been miraculously summoned back to life by a computer chip, which sent signals to electrodes implanted in his legs. "Engineers were able to do something medical doctors couldn't do," says Rappa. He knew then that he would go into biomedical engineering.

Page: < Prev 1 2 3 4 Next >

 Easy to print version