Prism Magazine - February 2003
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- By Bethany Halford and Jane Rushmore   

Forget skiing, figure skating, and all the other "easy" winter sports. Angelo Suriano wants to mush.

Suriano has his sights set on the 2005 Iditarod dogsled race, but a spinal cord injury in 1986 left him without full use of the lower half of his body. So Suriano turned to nearby Clarkson University and its emerging rehabilitation engineering program to help him customize a dogsled that could take him and his 16-dog team through the Iditarod's grueling 1,100 miles of ice and snow.

Volunteering to take on the challenge, engineering graduate student Dustin Crandall got together with Leslie Russek, an assistant professor of physical therapy. Their project is an informal offshoot of the rehab engineering program—a collaboration between Clarkson's engineering and physical therapy departments, whose projects include an off-road wheelchair and an electronic walking stick for the blind.

While Suriano has some use of his legs and can stand for periods of time, he needs a seat for when he gets tired. And the sled's handlebar has to be reinforced so that it can support his weight when he stands. Suriano and Crandall worked together on the design. "I tell him what I need, and he gives me ideas," says Suriano.

" It's not a real hard problem," says Crandall of the sled's modifications, "but it's time-consuming." Crandall spends about 10 hours a week working on the project, but modestly shrugs off any praise for his volunteer efforts, "It was just an opportunity to do a practical problem and help somebody."

Russek—who also holds a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering—says that Crandall's attitude reflects that of many students working on the rehab engineering projects. "They know that there's a real person out there counting on them to do the best that they can."

This winter Suriano plans to compete in two qualifying races—a 60-mile race in Sandwich Notch, N.H., and the 250-mile CanAm250 in Fort Kent, Maine. To qualify for the Iditarod, Suriano will have to complete the Sandwich Notch race and finish in the top 70 percent of the CanAm250. "I have a lot of work to do between now and then," says Suriano reflecting on the Iditarod, "But if I don't make it in 2005, then 2007."


Red Rover

Trash can. Upside down dustbin. Giant red barrel—that's how the media described some hot new "artwork" at Washington University in St. Louis. But they're not talking about a provocative exhibit—they're talking about the artist.

Lewis the Robotic Photographer cruises conferences, parties, and receptions snapping photos like a cross between Robert Mapplethorpe and R2-D2. The robot is the brainchild of Cindy Grimm and Bill Smart, assistant professors in the department of computer science and engineering. The husband-and-wife professors share lab space and wanted to collaborate on a project that would get more students interested in doing research in their labs.

The main challenge of making Lewis work is coordinating a lot of different computer programs—things like mapping technology, movement, and photographic composition. " There are 10,000 things you have to get working together to make it interesting," says Grimm. Zachary Byers, who worked with fellow undergraduate Michael Dixon on the project, agrees: "When you try to make a robot accomplish something in the real world it can be difficult."

To take a photo, Lewis scans the room for human skin. Once the robot identifies a group of people, it tries to figure out where their faces are and then takes a picture using some basic rules of composition. Byers says that because running the 300-pound robot into people "is not how you make friends," Lewis uses a complicated navigation system that incorporates laser rangefinders and pinging sonar sensors. According to Smart, Lewis has taken about 4,000 pictures so far—and a surprising number of them are quite good, "It's on the level of someone like me running around taking pictures."

Smart and Grimm say that Lewis has brought a lot of student attention to robotic work. Smart thinks part of the popularity is due to the project's simple aim. "I can explain it to my mother and she understands it and thinks it's cool," he says. But both professors attribute project's success to Byers and Dixon: "Zach and Michael were really responsible for how good the system is," says Smart. "They really have done 90 percent of the coding on this," adds Grimm.

Grimm thinks the media attention—Lewis has been featured in Wired and on—has done a lot to get students interested. Even homegrown hip-hop star Nelly gave the robot some "street cred" when he invited Lewis to photograph his birthday party. Grimm says she doesn't really know who Nelly is, but adds, "Our stature on campus, I think, has gone up."


A New Crop of CEOs

Students at the University of Maryland–College Park now have a chance to become CEOs—before they even get their bachelor's degree. That's because of the new Hinman Campus Entrepreneurship Opportunities (CEOs) program that enables students to start up their own companies right from their campus dorm rooms. William Destler, UM's provost and a former dean of engineering, says that the inspiration for the program came from Brian Hinman, a 1982 UM graduate in electrical engineering. "During one of our discussions, (Hinman) mentioned he would have stayed in Maryland for graduate school if UM had been more supportive of entrepreneurial endeavors," Destler says. "So I decided to start from the ground up and build a foundation in the undergraduate department to support entrepreneurs."

To show his support, Hinman—who launched three of his own companies: PictureTel Corp., Polycom Inc., and 2Wire Inc.—funded the program with a donation of $2.5 million. Those funds sponsor seminars, mentoring services, and boot camps to help students make contacts in the business world. The funds also paid for new high-tech dorms for the student CEOs, complete with wireless technology, videoconferencing, computer labs, and a plush conference room with cherrywood tables and leather chairs. The competitive program accepts only about half of the students who apply. Those students must maintain a 3.0 GPA and write an essay describing their business ideas. Of the 108 students currently in the program, about a third are engineers, a third are business majors, and a third represent a range of other majors. Sandeep Mehta, a senior majoring in computer engineering, joined the program last year. "I joined because I wanted to know how to take an idea from the lab to the marketplace," says Mehta. He teamed up with business major Jason Volk to start a wireless services company called Alertus Technologies.

Working over the summer, the Mehta and Volk won a $77,000 grant from the Maryland Institute Partnerships. The organization generally awards grants to commercialize technology from existing companies—so it was quite a coup for the undergrads to receive one. The corporate wunderkinds attribute their success to the CEO program. "The number one reason we are in this position is because of the CEO program," Mehta says. "Apart from the material assets of the dorm, it's the energy there. It's common to pass students in the hall discussing ideas and business plans. And we have industry speakers talking with us every week, telling us how they got started, what mistakes they made, and we learn from their experiences and their mistakes."


Bethany Halford is an associate editor at Prism magazine.
She can be reached at
Jane Rushmore is a freelance writer based in Buffalo, N.Y.
She can be reached at

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