Invention would help those living with Parkinson’s write again – Part II

May 8 finally arrived. I had anticipated this day for almost a year, ever since I sat down at my mom’s computer in Peoria, Illinois, June 11 of last year and sent Dr. Lozano that first email. Now, I would finally get to meet her and the SSH Team, Rodolfo Becerra, Carlos Hernandez, Misael Martinez, and Arnoldo Ventura, in person.

Shortly after arriving, I learned the site of the presentation had been moved due to scheduling conflicts. Instead of taking place on the first floor of UTRGV’s Engineering building, the presentation would be given on the second floor. Four smiling young men in sharp suits greeted me with warm hugs. It truly felt like we already knew each other.

As we waited in the lobby area on the second floor, the team showed me the product they designed, though an explanation would have to wait for their presentation. I asked how long they had known each other and was amazed to learn that all four of these UTRGV mechanical engineering students are graduates of Valley View High School in Hidalgo. For me, a retired teacher, that spoke so highly about the intelligence and the potential of our students in the Rio Grande Valley, something I have expressed for years. Given all of the tools, and excellent teachers, we can only imagine what they are able to accomplish.

A short time later, Dr. Lozano came out to the lobby. It’s difficult to describe the emotion I felt meeting Dr. Lozano and this team because…they cared. Instead of ignoring my original email, Dr. Lozano responded right away. Instead of forgetting about my mom’s story, she shared it with her students and found a group of senior design students who wanted to make a difference for my mom and others living with Parkinson’s, estimated to be approximately one million in the U.S. alone. Instead of merely creating a product to fulfill a course requirement, these mechanical-engineers-in-the-making thought about the people whose lives are affected by the struggle to write legibly and created a product that could restore a skill most of us take for granted.

Finally, it was time for the presentation. We were led to a meeting room, where we were introduced to three other engineering professors, Dr. Robert Freeman, department chair, Dr. YoungGil Park, and Dr. Kamal Sarkar, professor of Senior Design, the capstone, or ‘crowning achievement’ course for mechanical engineering students. The students set up their PowerPoint presentation and placed the product they designed on the table, around which we were all seated. I had hoped to video the entire presentation on Facebook Live; however, due to the intellectual property that would be presented, this was not possible.

I quickly learned that the name of their product, Tremor Cancellation, had been changed to Self-Stabilization Holder or SSH. The students began their presentation by explaining what they had learned about Parkinson’s disease, specifically about how the disease often causes rest tremor and micrographia (abnormally small, restricted handwriting). Their device, the SSH Pen, they said, would improve the fine motor skills of individuals, like my mom, who have developed micrographia. As they presented their capstone project to the UTRGV professors, the team discussed their market research, including market constraints, market size, and market leaders, explaining that while a few prototypes have been created, there currently is nothing on the market for individuals who live with rest tremor and micrographia.

The team showed the professors how their SSH Pen had developed over the course of the year as they worked to solve issues that arose. They provided a cost analysis, which included the cost of the prototype, production cost, product cost, retail cost, and QFD target price. (QFD, or quality function deployment, transforms the needs and wants of the end customer into an actual product.)

The team explained the software needed to design the SSH Pen’s prototype, to code the unit’s microcontroller, and to analyze the data. They also covered safety issues and features, environmental issues, lessons learned, best practices, and the data they collected during testing of their product. At the end of their presentation, team members explained their future work, which involves fine-tuning the code, conducting research using human subjects (which would involve the university’s Institution Review Board), conducting more extensive data analyses, and performing design modifications based on this work.

When the SSH Team completed their Senior Design Presentation of the SSH Pen, the professors asked several questions, most of them technical questions about their analyses and their design. The professors afforded me the opportunity to ask questions. I wanted to know what they learned about Parkinson’s that they did not previously know. The team expressed their new knowledge about micrographia and how it affects individuals with Parkinson’s (and other neurological disorders), both physically and emotionally.

I readily admit the more technical aspects of the questions were over my head; however, the team answered each one with ease. When Dr. Sarkar asked the team to demonstrate their device live, they invited him to try it. The other professors handed him blank paper to use. Dr. Sakar had to simulate a tremor in his hand, but as the SSH Pen moved across the paper, he expressed that he felt the device working to stabilize his hand.

After Dr. Sarkar, whose faculty profile on the UTRGV website indicates his research interests include medical devices, nanomanufacturing, nanomaterials, applications of nanomaterials for commercial usage, technopreneurship, and 3D printing of glass, used the team’s SSH Pen, he paused for a moment and then addressed Rodolfo, Carlos, Misael, and Arnoldo.

“If you can create a product that truly makes a difference in the life of a person,” he told them, “it is far more important than earning an ‘A’ in a class.” I wanted to clap and to cry. I couldn’t imagine, at that moment, what it would be like for my mom, and for so many others like her, to be able to pick up a device that would allow her to write freely again, without having to concentrate so hard and without worrying whether the person to whom she was sending the note would be able to read it.

Next week, in Part III of this story, you will learn what’s next for the SSH Team, and what Dr. Lozano has to say about them, through email interviews I conducted with all of them following the presentation of their capstone project.