Making a Hand for Maggie

Maggie Collier (biomedical engineering) in the Teche lab.
Maggie Collier (biomedical engineering) in the Teche lab.

Most of life’s defining moments happen unexpectedly as was the case for Maggie Collier in her biomedical engineering class one spring day.  

A materials specialist was visiting David Laiho’s introductory class to discuss how molding and casting play a critical role in engineering, including the field of prosthetics, and Collier was captivated.  

She wanted to learn how to craft prosthetic devices that would help others but didn’t know she was on the verge of discovering they could also help her.  

Brooke Wheeler – the specialist from Reynolds Advanced Materials whose son received a liberal arts degree from Cal Poly in 2013 – concluded his demonstration by offering each student the chance to make a mold of their thumb. 

Collier, however, had a different idea.  

She asked Wheeler on a whim if she could make a mold of her left hand to capture the likeness of her abnormally short fingers that were stunted by a syndrome that restricts blood flow in the womb.  

Wheeler’s response stunned Collier.  

“You could use this to make something to help with your hand,” he said, explaining that the mold could be a first step toward creating a device that would give Collier a level of mobility and freedom she’s never had.  

“Really?” she asked in disbelief. “No way!”  

Many molds later, a team within the student-run EMPOWER is on a yearlong mission to engineer a prosthetic device for their peer who has encouraged countless others to embrace their differences.  

The student-run organization selects a handful of projects each year to improve the quality of life of a veteran, community member or group of people with a disability through the creation of medical devices. Projects have ranged from building prosthetic arms and legs to developing motorized devices and health-related apps. 

Laiho reached out to club President Yael Livneh, a fourth-year biomedical engineering student, and the trio met to discuss the possibility of Collier as a candidate.  

“I thought I would be pitching the project to her,” said Collier, who tried to tamp down her excitement before the meeting. “I was still in disbelief this could be happening.”  

Livneh remembers the moment well.  

“When Maggie walked in and told me her story, I immediately said, ‘Yes! Let’s do this.’” 

Hand for Maggie Project: Biomedical Engineering student Maggie Collier displays a model of her hand.
Hand for Maggie Project: Biomedical Engineering student Maggie Collier displays a model of her hand.

How you can support the project 

EMPOWER students work on projects, such as Hand for Maggie, in the TECHE lab, located on the first floor of Engineering Building 192.  

To utilize the machinery, such as 3D printers, the team needs someone who knows how to use the equipment. The team working on the device for Collier has faced significant delays, however, because they often do not have anyone available to help print parts for their prototype.  

Hiring a student shop tech who could work in the TECHE lab would allow EMPOWER teams to make considerable progress on their projects. If you would like to support student shop techs and help groups like EMPOWER in the process, please consider giving through this link

By Emily Slater