A human connection
Professor of electrical and computer engineering at the
University of New Brunswick, and proud alumnus Kevin Englehart is giving a hand
to those who need it the most – literally.
Englehart, who creates artificial limbs for amputee, says
every person has something unique or their own set of requirements for which they
need an artificial limb.
“For amputees – either people who lost a limb because of an
accident or those who were born without limbs – most of them get along quite
well. But there are some things they just can’t do unless they have a
replacement limb,” says Englehart.
“So if it’s somebody who’s lost a hand, they
can do 90 per cent of the things, and they can do those well, but dressing
themselves is hard and feeding themselves.”
The Canadian Medical and Biological Engineering Society is
recognizing Englehart with its Outstanding Canadian Biomedical Engineering Award
for his dedication and contribution to the biomedical community at large
“I’m very honoured. The society is a group of my peers
across the country,” he says. “It was the first conference I ever went to, and
kind of cut my teeth as a biomedical engineer in this society, so it’s a group of
people that I have a lot of respect for, and for them to at least have the
notion to award me with something is a great privilege.”
After graduating from UNB with an undergraduate degree in electrical
engineering in 1989, Englehart left to work for Bell North Research in the communications
department, which at the time was installing phone networks throughout Canada.
After leaving Bell North Research, Englehart returned to UNB
to take his master’s degree. That’s when a course taught by Professor Phil
Parker changed his life, he says.
Leaving one form of communication, he began to study another.
“He taught this course on how nerves and muscles all work
and how they communicate with one another, and it was so much more
sophisticated than telephones or televisions or satellites,” he says.
“It was basically just how we worked. It’s how our brain
communicates through our nerves to our muscles, and that’s way more interesting
than telecommunications, and so I was hooked.”
After finishing his master’s degree in 1991, he returned to
UNB in 1998 for his PhD.
“I finally figured out Fredericton is where I want to be.”
Since completing his PhD, Englehart has spent the last 15
years of his career decoding information from the central nervous system.
He also worked closely with the United States military
because the artificial limbs they were creating were too expensive for those
who needed them the most.
Englehart and his staff created a hand that is functional,
but also allows insurance companies to support it.
“Things were just crazy expensive and never got to the point
where they got fit on people,” says Engelhart. “So we decided to take a step
back and say, ‘OK of all that crazy technology, what’s the most important in
terms of what an amputee really needs and can we build that for $10,000 instead
With years of research and simulations, not knowing whether
it would work in real life scenarios worried Englehart.
“About four or five years ago, we built the prototypes, I
never really thought it would ever get out of the lab, but all of a sudden it’s
just taken on a whole new life, and companies want this stuff,” he says.
As with any new technology, there will be a small subset of
clients willing to try out the new hand.
“The people who fit these limbs on people are called
Prosthesis, and so they’re like doctors, they don’t accept technology really
quickly,” says Englehart. “Once that small group of people is comfortable with
it we hope to expand the circle outwards. Hopefully then the technology will be
accepted by more people and it will become a standard of care.”
From the lab to the
Spending years decoding information from the central nervous
system, and creating prototypes, Englehart says it’s rewarding to see his years
of work meaning something.
“We started to put these on amputees, and one of the first
people to use this was an occupational therapist who was training an amputee
how to use it,” he says.
“This occupational therapist, who was usually quite critical
of anything new or techie, was saying this is the best thing to come along in
Students at UNB are also getting involved with Englehart’s
research, and contributing toward future technology.
“All of the leading edge research – the stuff
that isn’t going to go into a hand now, but five years from now – that’s what
the students are working on,” he says.
Contributed by Bronté James, Communications and Marketing. This story was made possible through the support of the UNB Associated Alumni.