In a recent story, Quartz reports on the unusual work of Sam Huynh. When she was an engineering student at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), Huynh stood out from the crowd. She was the child of refugees, queer, and a woman in a field dominated by men. Her relentless work ethic also attracted attention. She secured an internship at SpaceX in her early 20s and then went on to work for Tesla as a design engineer. Despite being on a conventional path to success, Huynh left her job at Tesla in 2012 to pursue something closer to her heart.
Specifically, she began designing a high-tech exoskeleton for paralyzed people. She felt inspired to shift her focus when her former RIT classmate and close friend Taylor Hattori was injured in a dirt bike accident. He was paralyzed from the chest down, but Huynh was determined to help him use his limbs again. After returning to school to earn her Master’s degree in materials engineering, she got to work designing a robotic body suit as part of her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at the University of Southern California.
The exoskeleton is meant to allow those with paralysis to move independently. Pneumatic “muscles” powered by air pressure control the suit in an organic way that resembles how the body moves. Electrical signals from the wearer’s own muscles trigger actions; flexing the pectorals, for example, activates motion in the forearm portion of the body suit. The fancy gear is more than a way for users to get around. Huynh also intends for it to be a form of physical therapy that helps patients regain the mobility they lost.
Her design is built around the widely held theory of neuroplasticity, which states that the brain is capable of rewiring itself based on thoughts and movements. That means if part of the brain is hurt in an accident, like the part responsible for controlling arm movements, it’s possible for the brain to form new circuits that perform some of those lost functions.
Getting to that point requires diligence, and exoskeletons provide patients a way to practice on their own without solely relying on a physical therapist for help. The exoskeleton Huynh is designing at USC is still a work-in-progress, but her long-term goal is to build a device that gets wearers to the point where they no longer need to use it. “I know how much Taylor would hate to be reliant on something that wasn’t himself,” Huynh told Quartz. “I don’t want people to have to be stuck in my apparatus: I want them to use it so they can learn how to reuse their own bodies.”
Huynh is hardly the first person to think of building a suit that lets paralyzed people walk again. A concept for a “pneumatic bodyframe” controlled by electrical signals in the brain was first proposed by H. Wangenstein in 1883. Exoskeletons controlled by the wearer have since become a reality, but they can usually cost anywhere from $60,000 to $120,000. Hunyh made sure her product would be accessible to as many people as possible. In total, the materials used to construct her suit cost a few hundred dollars. Her current set-up only controls the upper limbs, but she plans to eventually design a suit for the whole body.