3 Projects, 3 Ph.D. Students, 3 Women

Written By: Alyssa S. Ho (Guest Writer)

In the Disney movie Big Hero 6, the main character, Hiro, visits a college called the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology. There, he is left in awe after glimpsing some of the new gadgets and technology the students were developing. Although in today’s world we do not have “electro mag suspension bikes” or “chemical combination spheres”, the scene in which Hiro visits his brother’s “nerd lab” does not stray too far from reality. Many innovative technologies are being produced right under our noses by graduate students earning their PhDs in Engineering. Similar to Big Hero 6, each student takes up a project of their choice and they work in the same building, even in the same room. Such is the case at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) inside the Gates-Thomas building where, oftentimes, many projects are taking place all at once.

If we go down to one of the basement floors, we would find large rooms with monitors and equipment scattered everywhere. On the left side of the basement, there is a human-sized robot walking on a treadmill, and on the wall, a bouncing spring that will someday be used in Disney’s theme parks. To the right is Rachel Gehlhar, a third-year grad student, who demonstrates how a robotic prosthetic leg can be used for amputees. She explains how the prosthetic uses pressure sensors to indicate how far the leg should extend and retract from the knee and ankle, and therefore demands less effort from the amputee than a typical stiff metal brace.

Although Gehlhar did not have much prior knowledge in robotics, she took on the challenge because “walking is such a daily activity that we don’t even think about, but for amputees, it can be a real hurdle in their daily lives, so I think it’s really important that we find a solution.”

Photo By Diane Chang Ho

If we continue up two floors, we will find Melissa Tanner, a grad student finishing up her PhD this year. She is partnering with the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) on their DuAxle robot. The DuAxle robot’s focus is to help lunar robots propel in and out of craters. The way it accomplishes this task is by parking itself on the top of a cliff above a crater, and then tethers down the lower half of its body to the inside the crater. That way, the rover can unwind itself off a cliff and back up again. Although the hope is to send this robot to Mars or the moon, it can also be used here on Earth as a rescue bot.

“I pull out my robot’s pictures, the same way people pull out their baby’s pictures,” Tanner jokes.