Feature left bracketright bracket Fall 2023

Wearable Robot Offers Hope

Tess Meier uses an insider's perspective to perfect an exoskeleton hand prototype.

Tess Meier and her robotic HOPE hand

As a junior biomedical engineering major looking to fulfill a lab credit requirement, Tess Meier ’18, MS ’19, began working with a robotics engineering graduate student on a hand exoskeleton prototype called the Hand Orthosis with Powered Extension, or HOPE hand. Coincidentally—whether by fate or chance—a close childhood friend was in a car accident about a year earlier that left her with a traumatic brain injury and hemiparesis, some of the very conditions that Meier’s team hoped the device would help.

Her inside perspective on life with this type of hand impairment helped focus the research on a previously overlooked aspect. “A lot of exoskeletons provide grasp strength and help the person close their hand,” she says. “But for a lot of patients, including my friend, the hand is in a closed fist position all the time and they need something to help them open their hand.”

Fueled by her new passion, Meier discovered her calling. She added a robotics engineering minor to her BME major in her senior year, and went on to earn her master’s in robotics engineering. She is now pursuing her PhD in robotics engineering.

During her master’s studies, she continued to work in the Automation and Interventional Medicine Lab with mentor Christopher Nycz, and Gregory Fischer, her master’s advisor and a professor in the Department of Robotics Engineering. She was able to test the first HOPE hand prototype on her friend and then used that feedback to make mechanical revisions to the exoskeleton and conduct a larger-scale user study on muscle control. 

A Return to Academia

Meier worked in industry for two years after finishing her master’s degree but ultimately felt drawn back to academia. Fischer enthusiastically welcomed her inquiry about continuing her hand exoskeleton research at the doctoral level and helped connect her with the FORW-RD Program, a natural fit for someone so passionate about harnessing robotics to benefit people. [See related story.]

For her dissertation, she is exploring ways to improve the user interface on the HOPE hand, work that has prompted her to take some neuroscience courses to better understand the human brain.

“For someone with a prosthetic hand, the neural pathway is mostly intact from their brain to their muscles—they are missing their hand. But with a brain injury, like my friend has, it’s an area of their brain that is not working,” she says. To test how the hand and the brain interact, Meier has created the PneuHOPE hand, a version of the exoskeleton that replaces cables and motors with plastic strips, pneumatic cylinders, and other MRI-safe parts. 

Close up of the HOPE hand

WPI’s PracticePoint healthcare technology development facility has given her access to state-of-the-art manufacturing and prototyping equipment, as well as the MRI machine in which she will conduct a baseline study to measure whether the PneuHOPE hand can prompt brain activity, similar to when a physical therapist manually opens and closes a patient’s hand. 

Meier is quick to point out, though, that her goal is not to develop a robot that can replace physical therapists. Both of her parents are physical therapists, after all, and she has always admired the fact that they help people feel better. Instead, she hopes her robotic device will supplement physical therapy.

“If a person gets physical therapy twice a week and they use a hand exoskeleton at other times, that increases how much they’re able to engage that part of their brain,” she says, explaining that when the motor area of the brain has been damaged, repetitive exercises help reengage those neurons. “It’s as if the main highway is closed, so we’re trying to find the back roads that might still be connected. And then we help the patient travel those back roads more frequently.”

Technology Helping Humans

Working at FORW-RD has helped Meier understand why researchers should consider the specific ways their technological advances will help humans. She’s also learned how to articulate why those considerations are important. 

Both lessons came in handy when she co-advised Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP) teams last spring. WPI’s first-ever graduate student to serve in this role, she worked with Erin Solovey, associate professor in the Department of Computer Science, and Isa Bar-On, director of the Israel Project Center

At some point it occurred to Meier that the structure of IQPs dovetails perfectly with what she is learning at FORW-RD—namely to stay focused on how technology will affect human life. “With an IQP, you’re coming into somebody else’s life or community and you’re trying to see what you can do to help them. But the biggest thing you can do is actually just understand what they need.”

She plans to finish her dissertation in December 2024, then seek a faculty position that lets her continue her research and work with students. As she looks ahead, she can’t help but reflect on the past, especially how her personal experiences have shaped her professional choices. 

“I love that I’m helping people while also working with my hands and doing creative problem solving,” Meier says. “It feels very poetic the way I’ve been able to incorporate all these things into my academic career.”

Tess Meier uses an MRI machine with her HOPE hand

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