By Michael Hill
It was quite a ‘feat’ when the 3D-printed ‘hand’ of 5-year-old Hailey Dawson threw a ceremonial first pitch at a Baltimore Orioles game in August.
A huge moment, too, for Rutgers senior biomedical engineering major Katherine Lau. She led the team at the University of Nevada Las Vegas that designed, engineered and printed Hailey’s right hand replacing the deformed one. “I almost shed a tear when I watched the video. That’s my main goal in life, to improve the lives of others.”
At the end of her sophomore year at Rutgers Lau was looking for something to confirm that a career in biomedical engineering is something she really wanted. She went back home to Nevada and found it. “It was really just a stroke of luck.”
Through networking, Lau connected with UNLV in the summer of 2014 and the challenge of making a hand for Hailey learning as she went along. She had read about 3D printing but never tried it. “It was a huge learning curve because this was my first biomedical project. My first hands-on, getting down and dirty, you could say, with all the materials and stuff like that.”
It was the first prosthetics project for the whole team, Lau, other students and professors. They made a mold of Hailey’s hand to take measurements, designed the prosthetic, programmed the 3D printer and watched it take roughly two hours to make an all-plastic, light-weight hand and then engineered it with wires and a product called Ninja-flex for the joints.
Greg Dawson, Hailey’s dad, said, “The palm fits in the hand and as her wrists moves up and down the hand opens and closes which allows her to grip certain things.
“I was always hoping that it would work. There were always some downfalls that we needed to do to as a next design. That was a great learning process, too,” continued Lau. Not bad for a summer project. “By the end of summer, it definitely confirmed this is what I wanted to do.”
Lau says the hand cost pennies on the dollar compared to conventional prosthetics. She says Hailey is now on her 4th version of the robotic-looking hand and recently wrote her name for the first time “Over the last two years I’ve seen how far the hand has come and developed and progressed and through time I have realized how much more impact this hand will have for Hailey and with all the attention this project is getting I’m really glad that other people like Hailey will eventually get a hand like hers as well. So, through time, I’ve learned to appreciate what I’ve actually done, how much importance and significance it actually has.”
Lau says she wants a career doing this, using biomedical engineering to help people with neuro-degenerative challenges function without limitations. With Hailey’s hand, it seems she already has a leg up on the battle.