Newswise — UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — To design better assistive exoskeletons, a wearable device that helps those with disabilities walk, researchers need to further understand the complexities of walking. The National Science Foundation recently awarded Anne Martin, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Penn State, a $500,000 Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant to study how both healthy and post-stroke individuals walk.

The NSF’s CAREER program is one of the most prestigious awards a young professor can earn. Equipped with this new support, Martin said she is ready to propel the underlying science behind human movement forward in her research lab, the Gait Optimization Lab.

The project aims to understand how people transition naturally between walking speeds, why they choose certain gaits and walking mannerisms and lastly, how the addition of a robotic exoskeleton fundamentally changes those processes. 

Specifically, Martin will develop a novel, physics-based, predictive computational model and apply the framework to test human subjects’ movements to determine if the goal of walking remains consistent for different situations. Ultimately, she hopes to create a method to design exoskeleton controllers in simulation prior to testing them on patients.

Though Martin’s interest in this area stems from the unique engineering challenge presented in quantifying the infinite ways a person can walk, she said she also hopes the work can help those who struggle with mobility.

“The fact is, the way people move isn’t as repeatable as a traditional engineering system,” she said. “This project in particular focuses on people who had strokes. If we had the ability to better rehabilitate them to walk easily, that could have a big impact.”  

Martin hopes this project will also leverage the appeal of exoskeletons to humanize engineering research. She will use the project to improve undergraduate students’ modeling abilities through workshops deployed in ME 370: Vibration of Mechanical Systems, a course that studies vibration characteristics of mechanical systems and vibration controls.

Once she has developed computer simulations, Martin will use human subjects, first healthy individuals to study their walking gait, and then transition to post-stroke patients. 

Eventually, the computational models created during the project will help to provide fundamental knowledge behind human gait, providing a better understanding of how people move in their daily lives and also benefit those who struggle with everyday movement.

“I hope this work will help answer the question of how useful exoskeleton rehabilitation can be for stroke patients,” she said. “Right now, it’s still an open question.”