William Liu, a Tufts University Laidlaw Scholar, on improving people's lives with engineering and creating PPE to support medical workers during COVID-19.
For my Laidlaw research project, I worked on a soft robotics exosuit at the Tufts Human Factors Lab. Our mission was to design an exoskeleton system that adapts to the user's behavior, supports their upper torso and reduces back muscle strain, based on real-time electromyography muscle signal and motion data.
Unlike traditional posture correcting devices, the powering mechanism of this exoskeleton suit is made up of soft actuators. There are two parts to this project: the dynamics system provides personalized upper torso support without interfering with the user's autonomous motion, and the software interface uses a machine learning model to identify the user’s posture sequence and provide personalized feedback.
With an increased tendency to work from home and a prolonged sitting period for more and more people, a non-intrusive wearable device has the potential to significantly improve a user’s sitting habit and support a healthier work style.
Where did your passion for this research originate?
When I first started my undergraduate studies at Tufts, I held on to traditional expectations and understandings of engineering. Thriving in this close-knit community, I discovered something more. Engineering is about people. I became very interested in Biomechanics and Human Factors Engineering and helped co-found the Biomechanics Club at Tufts.
I met my Laidlaw research advisor, Prof. James Intriligator, in a hallway. During that conversation, our mutual interests in this space sparked the idea to create an assistive device. He helped to transform a part of the Tufts Human Factors Lab to support this research with the addition of the soft robotics research area.
Playing an Active Role in the Engineering Community
In addition to my devotion to research projects at Tufts, I am active in the Tufts Engineering Student Council (ESC). By taking on new responsibilities, tasks, and events, I have grown from Club Representative to Secretary to President.
I love inspiring fellow students to engage with the engineering community at Tufts. We hosted the first regional Engineering Leadership Conference for the National Association of Engineering Student Councils, where we represented Tufts and welcomed council members from other universities. I learned that leadership is about sharing experience to inspire each other. You don’t have to hold a title to make an impact, as long as you are passionate about what you do and willing to influence other people. The will to move the team forward is the best quality I perceive as a good leader.
Top leadership tips
⚡️ Do to inspire, listen to learn
⚡️ Be empathetic
⚡️ Be an organized person and take initiatives
⚡️ Learn to communicate effectively
⚡️ Provide constructive feedback and recognize others’ effort
Supporting Medical Workers During COVID-19
Last spring, I was a part of a bicoastal engineering team that repurposed snorkelling masks to help protect medical workers from COVID-19. The masks offered full-face protection but needed special adapters to connect with antiviral filters in hospitals.
I worked with engineers at Stanford to 3D print the adapters and deliver them to California in a matter of days. Our adapters eliminated the need for any points of failure, and the material didn’t require any post-processing, thereby preventing leaks that might let in the virus.
At the time, with coronavirus continuing to overtake my home country, China, and starting to claim lives in the U.S., I was trying to do my small part to bring hope to others. I wasn’t able to help my own family, so it was good to try to contribute to saving lives in the U.S.
What does it mean for you to be a Laidlaw Scholar?
Being a Laidlaw Scholar is about being part of a big family. I feel grateful to be recognized and have this title, but most importantly, I am part of a family with other brilliant minds, loving souls. It is such a diverse community where you can find people with quirky research interests while making an impact in the area they are super passionate about.
It is rare to find people with both research capabilities and leadership potential. I used to doubt that I am not good at both, but becoming a Laidlaw Scholar has inspired me to challenge myself to excel.
Which particular leaders inspire you the most and why?
I am inspired by Panos Panay, Chief Product Officer at Microsoft, who is responsible for the entire lineup of the Microsoft Surface product. I watched so many product launch events he hosted and got really motivated by how he communicates and his passion for the products.
The way he talks about them is like talking about his own kids, proudly. The way he communicates with customers is like chatting with old friends. He really takes in the feedback from customers and leads initiatives to improve the products accordingly. The way he leads the team at Microsoft is collaborative. He brings together the best of Microsoft. I envision myself becoming someone like him in the future.
Describe a scene from the future you are striving to create:
I want to build a future where consumer technologies are a harmonious part of people’s lives. Technology certainly improves people’s lives, but we can do better. More human-centred design considerations need to be introduced, and consumer feedback needs to play a bigger role in designing products. Non-intrusive product design should blend into people’s lives.
📺 Currently binging: BEASTARS
🎵 My quarantine anthem: Leave the Door Open - Bruno Mars
📚 My top book recommendation: Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari
🎧 Podcast obsession: Waveform by MKBHD
🌈 Something that made me feel joy recently: I got vaccinated!
William is a Laidlaw Undergraduate Leadership and Research Scholar at Tufts University. 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.
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