PARTNERS IN HEALING
Student Group Applies Engineering to Solve Real-world Health Issues
f there is one thing that engineers love to do, it’s solve problems. SaskInvent is a University of Saskatchewan student group that came about because its founder saw problems that needed to be solved, says current president Brandon Thompson.
“There are student groups for social issues, volunteer groups, but no groups that would build stuff to help people. We seek out problems in society and design or build something to solve those problems,” says Thompson, who is in his fifth year of civil engineering.
While the group is interdisciplinary, Thompson says there tend to be more engineers involved than other disciplines. The club’s founder, Devon Bradburn, was in mechanical engineering, and they have their meetings in the Engineering Building.
“Engineers are the brute force, but I hope it will turn into something that every college is talking about and knows about,” Thompson says.
All the projects they tackle are unique. More often than not, they start with a request for help. For their page turn device project, a woman came to them with her problem: She wants to read physical books, but has multiple sclerosis and can’t flip the pages.
Other projects take longer to come together, like their optogenetics research project, which aims to treat epileptic seizures using bio-luminescent light. That project is into its third year which is a challenge for a student group where graduations make continuity an issue.
Faculty members oversee the projects, both to help with continuity and as resources for the students. Richard Retzlaff, P.Eng., an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, is helping with the page turn device. Dr. Sean Maw, P. Eng. and Jerry G. Huff Chair in Innovative Teaching and associate professor at the Ron and Jane Graham School of Professional Development, is helping with TASET (Total Audio Sensory Experience Translator), a system that will translate music into tactile sensations for people with hearing loss.
For the optogenetics research, they have help from Dr. John Howland, a professor in the department of physiology who specializes in behavioural neuroscience. Dr. Ivar Mendez, faculty member in neurosurgery, helped and advised with one of their completed projects: 3-D printed surgical brain models, which Mendez uses in his research on Parkinson’s disease.
SaskInvent is currently working on five projects. For their newest project, the man who requested their help got into a car accident over the summer and is currently in rehab to heal the tendons in his wrist. He’s requested SaskInvent’s help to build him a better rehab device -- one with more functions than the device he’s currently using.
Research plays a big part in making any of the projects successful. For the rehab project, they need to find out if there are already products like it out there and if it’s even feasible.
“The people who are interested in the project don’t have too much background in tendons and arms, so we will have to look elsewhere for help. That’s the cool thing about being a diverse university group - we can look elsewhere; it’s not just an engineering group.”
Which discipline takes on a leading role within the group depends on the project. The optogenetics research project is driven by the members on the medicine side with engineering students playing a supporting role but the TASET project is driven by engineers.
Giving Back to Students
The group was founded in 2014. Thompson would like to see SaskInvent grow into a well-known entity that students will be proud to put on their resumé and employers will recognize.
“The students are putting so much time into the projects. I want SaskInvent to give something back to them.”
He’s hoping to arrange subsidized costs for events on campus or to send SaskInvent members to workshops or conferences.
There are no goals for how many projects they want to get done. There are no hard and fast rules for picking projects, either. They choose projects based on their interests and people’s needs.
If you have projects in mind that might interest the students at SaskInvent, they’re always open to hearing new ideas. Visit their website at saskinvent.ca for more information.
1. 3-D Printed Prosthetics for Children. Create low-cost, 3D printed prosthetic hands for children with birth defects that prevent the growth of fingers.
2. Optogenetics Research. Design a real-time treatment of epileptic seizures using bio-luminescent light.
3. Page Turner Device. Develop an assistive device to turn the pages of a book for a woman with multiple sclerosis.
4. Rehabilitation Hand Device. Improve the current hand rehabilitation devices to allow individual finger therapy, as opposed to the current method where all fingers are adjusted simultaneously regardless of the individual finger’s progress.