UD undergraduate continues biomechanics research

Editor’s note: This Q&A is one of a series of articles exploring the research University of Delaware students have been pursuing. Though COVID-19 continues to shape some plans, students still can participate in hundreds of remarkable projects, in-person and remotely. Follow our “Frontiers of Discovery” series as UDaily highlights some of these scholars.

As a high school junior, Hanna Armstrong got a running head start at Prof. Jill Higginson’s lab through the University of Delaware’s National Biomechanics Day celebration.

Fast forward three years and Armstrong is now a UD Honors sophomore biomedical engineering major and among Higginson’s youngest protégés. This summer, she conducted research to optimize novel shoe insole pressure sensors.

Q: How would you explain your work to a fifth grader?

Armstrong: One of Newton’s three laws is that every force has an equal and opposite force. This means, when you push on something, it is also pushing back at you. When you walk, your foot pushes on the ground to move you forward. The ground is also pushing up on you to help you in the same way. This is called ground reaction force and it can be measured. The goal of my work is to help create a device that can fit in your shoe to measure ground reaction force wherever you are so you don’t have to go to a lab. My goal, specifically, is to find what parts of the foot require coverage so companies in the future only have to make enough of the sensor to collect data where needed.

Q: What are the possible real-world applications for your study?

Armstrong: While other researchers have previously begun development of the technology, the main focus of my work is to determine what parts of the foot should be covered by the shoe insole force sensors to get the most reliable data. The outcomes of my study will help future manufacturers make material that is most efficient.

The application for this product, once complete, is vast. The main focus group is people who experience walking disabilities, where one foot is weaker than the other. These are most commonly post-stroke patients. With these sensors, we could more easily determine if their weaker side is getting stronger and see how their daily activities are impacting their health improvements. These insoles could also be used to track athletes to see where and when they’ve experienced an injury or in commercial shoe testing.

Q: What drew you to research?

Armstrong: What draws me to research is the opportunity it brings for innovation. With every expert that I’ve met, I’ve been awed by the unique perspective they bring. Being introduced to these people made me want to learn how to look at problems in new ways myself and try to solve them.

The outcomes of Armstrong’s study could help future manufacturers of insole force sensors make material that is more efficient.

Q: What motivated you to study this topic?

Armstrong: The idea that makes biomechanics most appealing to me is that the human body can be analyzed like a machine. In this field of work, I can make a device that facilitates enhanced patient observation, ultimately decreasing the gap between them and their doctors. This has motivated me to work through tough problems.

Q: What have you found most surprising about this work so far?

Armstrong: The most intriguing thing about my studies is how interdisciplinary the work is. I’ve gained experience in 3D design, coding, electronics and material science. These are all things that I had never originally planned on learning, but needed to complete my study.

Q: How does this experience align with your broader professional goals?

Armstrong: The ultimate goal of my education is to start my name with “Dr.” To get there, I plan to attend a Ph.D. program or medical school. I’m deeply interested in these two educational tracks, but am still unsure of which one I will choose. This research experience helps me gain a better understanding of what I want to do and introduce me to new people that serve as mentors.

Q: What do you do when you are not doing research?

Armstrong: When I’m not researching I’m either working at a pizza shop as a server, going to the gym, hanging out with my family and friends or cooking.

Q: What advice would you give to your fellow students who may be considering or are planning to pursue undergraduate research?

Armstrong: Do not be afraid to try something new. There is much more to the research world than what I could have ever imagined and I’m lucky to be able to experience it. If you find something that isn’t completely part of your career plan but is intriguing to you, reach out to the professor or to other students to learn more and then go for it.

For Future Researchers

Blue Hens with big ideas will find ample opportunity to explore them with the help of the Undergraduate Research Program (URP).

A hallmark of any college experience, research is the process that leads to the creation of knowledge. It begins with a question and ends in a new understanding of the world around us.

Those who participate directly benefit from an enriched learning experience. They enjoy meaningful mentorship and develop critical leadership and communication skills. In addition, undergraduate researchers often earn higher GPAs and have greater success after graduation.

To explore more, visit the URP website and schedule a consultation with staff.

Questions? Contact undergradresearch@udel.edu.

| Photos by Evan Krape |