Scholar Spotlight - Baptiste Tankwa

Laidlaw Scholar, Baptiste Tankwa, on Restoring Facial Movement Through Advanced Technology.
Scholar Spotlight - Baptiste Tankwa

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Baptiste Tankwa, an EPFL Laidlaw Scholar, Investigates Innovative Solutions in Biomedical Engineering for Facial Paralysis Rehabilitation.

Research title: Designing an artificial muscle for facial paralysis

Have you ever heard of dielectric elastomer actuators? A very good video to help you understand how they work is here. They are indeed used in various fields, including soft robotics. My project involves using these soft actuators to replace functions such as smiling or frowning in individuals diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, which is a neurological disorder resulting in paralysis or weakness on one side of the face.

The artificial muscle, I worked on, aims to raise the eyebrows of a Bell’s palsy patient. This solution involves inserting the artificial muscle between the existing muscle and the skin. Dielectric Elastomers Actuators (DEAs) were selected for this solution among all available types of soft actuators due to their thin profile, only a few micrometers, their lightweight properties, their high power-to-weight ratio and the fact they operate swiftly and silently. Despite these advantages, there are challenges associated with dielectric elastomer actuators, particularly their requirement for high activation voltages. While achievable with a low current, this poses concerns regarding power supply and implementation within the human body.

In addition, this project involves demonstrating the use of soft actuators to raise the eyebrows of a patient with Bell's palsy. This was demonstrated by creating a setup showing the movement of the eyebrow as a function of the voltage applied to the DEA. Further research will focus on finding a solution for miniaturising the power supply and obtaining larger displacements.

Where did your passion for this research originate?

Soft robotics is an interdisciplinary field that I find fascinating. In particular, it lies at the interface between electronics and materials science. My passion for this field was sparked by looking at some of Professor Katzschmann's publications. It was then fuelled by the various applications of electronics and materials science in the medical field. Neurosoft, a flexible electrode technology company founded by Nicolas Vachicouras, Ludovic Serex and Prof. Stéphanie P. Lacour, was one of the first EPFL-related companies I heard about. At a small conference, Nicolas Vachicouras presented his innovative technology and the impact it could have on people suffering from severe tinnitus. I was amazed. He had seen in flexible electronics what I had seen in soft robotics, an innovative approach that would meet some of today's challenges while also creating the challenges of tomorrow.  I knew straight away that this was what I wanted to do after my engineering studies. For me, becoming an engineer means integrating innovative technologies to help others.

Working principle of Dielectric Elastomer Actuator. The aim of my project is to replace the damaged eyebrow muscles of a facial paralysis patient.
Setup for electrical characterisation.

What is the most memorable moment from your Laidlaw scholarship experience so far?

The most memorable moment of my Laidlaw scholarship journey lies in the Chateau d'Oex retreat, a leadership training of EPFL members against the backdrop of the magnificent Swiss mountains. Amidst the stunning views, we talked about emotions intelligence, leadership behaviors, team dynamics and how to give regular, constructive feedback.

What I appreciated most, was the emphasis on teamwork. We participated in non-standard group exercises that reflect the complexity of teamwork dynamics. These activities not only strengthened our ties, but also provided us with valuable keys for the future. I've learned a lot from the lecturers, and especially from my peers, who are all inspiring individuals.

Landscape of Château d’Oex Retreat.

What is the biggest challenge you came across in your research and leadership journeys so far, and what did you learn from it?

The major challenge in my research and leadership journey has been cultivating patience. Dealing with the challenges of a research project is like climbing a mountain, step by step you have to continue to the top, even if the top is still so far away. Resisting the impulse to rush towards the endpoint demanded discipline. It was essential to appreciate incremental progress rather than seeking immediate results. This experience taught me the significance of patience and rigor, crucial qualities for effective leadership. Although progress may seem small on a daily basis, each step contributes to overall success. I learned that success is built on consistent, incremental steps, and developing patience is vital for overcoming challenges in both research and leadership.

What does it mean for you to be a Laidlaw Scholar?

To qualify as a Laidlaw Scholar, it may initially sound like one needs to embody qualities such as ambition, boldness, curiosity, and determination. However, in essence, the key to becoming a Laidlaw Scholar is authenticity.  You just need to be true to yourself, have faith in your abilities, and trust in your determination and ambition to pursue your dreams.

Being part of the Laidlaw Scholar community has proven to be a profoundly enriching experience for me. It has granted me the chance to connect and learn from individuals who bring a diverse range of experiences, histories, and cultural perspectives. This community has played a crucial role in fostering my personal growth and broadening my horizons.

Which leaders inspire you the most and why?

I find inspiration in leaders who make bold moves, daring to take risks and achieve what may seem impossible. Among them, Daniel Katz, David Fenkel, and John Hodges, the visionaries behind studio A24, stand out. As founders of an independent American film production and distribution company, they specialize in bringing unconventional stories to the screen:  stories that are atypical, occasionally bizarre, sometimes humorously absurd, and at times profoundly dramatic. What sets them apart is their fearlessness in producing projects that might be deemed too unconventional by mainstream studios. And surprisingly it works...An example of their audacity is the 2022 film "Everything Everywhere All At Once," ,  which not only defied expectations but also dominated the Oscars, securing seven awards, including the prestigious Best Picture. Their ability to turn the unconventional into cinematic triumph is truly inspiring.

Briefly describe a scene from the future you are striving to create.

In the future I aim to create, people with facial paralysis will regain movement through innovative technology. Imagine a world where advanced tech brings hope, restoring lost motor functions. This future breaks down barriers, offering newfound independence and an improved quality of life for those facing these difficulties. It's a vision where technology empowers and transforms lives.

Quick-fire Questions

🎥 Currently Binging: Poker Face

📚 My top book recommendation: Un long chemin vers la liberté, by Nelson Mandela and Les Contemplations by Victor Hugo

🎶 My anthem: eMcimbini by Kabza De Small

🎵 Podcast obsession: HippoH

🌈 Something that made me feel joy recently: 

Dancing with my friends in the rain.

💭 Parting thoughts:

Connect on LinkedIn!


You can find Baptiste on LinkedIn. If you are interested in learning more about Baptiste's research, check out his research here.

 Baptiste is a Laidlaw Undergraduate Leadership and Research Scholar at @EPFL. Become a Laidlaw Scholar to conduct a research project of your choice, develop your leadership skills, and join a global community of changemakers from world-leading universities.

Find out more about the Laidlaw Scholars Undergraduate Leadership and Research Programme.

🔦 Discover more Scholar Spotlights: 

⚡️ Thomas Williamson, a Laidlaw Scholar at Durham University on the hidden world of stress granules.

⚡️ Keir Chauhan, a Laidlaw Scholar at University College London on the power of birds in bridging humanity and nature.

⚡️ Lucy Nyamaah, a Laidlaw Scholar at Oxford University's Saïd Business School on pushing past gender norms and envisioning a female-led future in the energy sector.

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