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Alumna Elaine Houston Helping Robotics Reach Forward

September 9, 2013

Personal Projects: Elaine Houston, a 2010 biomedical engineering alumna, uses her life experiences to help the design team make innovations in personal mobility devices. (Photo by Mike Lanke)

Many people get far into college before they start to figure out what career they would like to pursue. Not Elaine Houston. “I wanted to be a robotic engineer since second grade,” says the 2010 biomedical engineering graduate. And, her wish has come true.

     Houston is a member of the research team developing the Personal Mobility and Manipulation Appliance (PerMMA), a robotic wheelchair named one of the 10 most promising robots by Popular Science magazine.

     “(PerMMA) is a power wheelchair with two robotic arms. It allows people to be able to do tasks independently and spontaneously,” says Houston, a doctorate candidate in the University of Pittsburgh's Rehabilitation Science and Technology Program. She is an active member of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories, led by Rory Cooper, PhD, a leader in the field.

     “I knew I wanted to get into robotics, but my dad asked me, ‘where do you want to go with it?’” she says. Houston was intrigued by the potential for robotics in areas such as assistive technology and prosthetics. “I decided there’s a real need for real people.”

     Houston had a personal interest in the area, using a wheelchair herself, though she has greater capabilities than many for whom PerMMA is being designed. “I’m able to put myself in their shoes,” she says.

     Her role on the PerMMA project has focused on the user interface, helping a person control the chair, and measuring the assistive value of this exiting technology. She is working on such things as voice command and tablet-based controls, including the various options that allow those with significant disabilities to control computers.

     Houston looks forward to that day when PerMMA begins to make a difference in people’s lives—allowing them to get a meal on their own, go shopping on their own, or hang out with a friend at a coffee shop. “In most cases, it’s the small stuff that’s frustrating. I’ve experienced a lot of the same challenges. Giving opportunities to others is one of the biggest things that I love about what I do,” she says.

     Outside the lab, Houston is a strong supporter of science, engineering, technology, and math (STEM) education. She is affectionately known as the “Tech Wizard,” and coaches a FIRST Lego League team in Pittsburgh’s Tech-Link robotics outreach program. Those efforts earned her the Carnegie Science Center’s University/Post-Secondary Student Award this spring.