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When Brenna Argall was starting college with an undergraduate major in mathematics and minors in music and biology, she never imagined she’d become a robotic engineer developing highly complex machines to assist people with severe motor dysfunctions. More than two decades later, Dr. Brenna Argall has the distinction of being Associate Professor of Computer Science, Mechanical Engineering, and Physical Medicine and Robotics at Northwestern University. She is also founder and director of the assistive and rehabilitative robotics lab (argallab) at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab (formerly the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago).
An innovator, just weeks ago Dr. Argall was featured on the CBS television show Mission Unstoppable, a weekly show that profiles women who are doing groundbreaking STEM work. In Dr. Argall’s case, her work has been leading the research team that’s developed a “control sharing” robotic wheelchair. It’s a highly customized wheelchair that works collaboratively with human users who have severe motor impairments.
Just as Dr. Argall integrates her engineering, robotics, computer science, and math skills in the research role, her lab is part of an applied research and therapeutic interdisciplinary environment. The lab is part of a unique open plan facility within the rehabilitation hospital where researchers, doctors, patients, faculty, students, and physical therapists are working essentially side by side. “I work in a translational medical environment,” said Dr. Argall. “Instead of traditional closed-door offices, we work in an open space with pods, in close proximity to each other so that we can get easy feedback and learn from each other.” The end point for Dr. Argall’s s research team is both producing cutting-edge and highly effective medical assistance devices—as well as having certainty that the cost for these complex devices will be covered for patients through medical insurance.
Through their work, Dr. Argall and her research team have learned that the ideal wheelchair for severely impaired users is not necessarily a totally autonomous one. “Many people like to have some control of their device,” said Dr. Argall, “and a kind of shared or hybrid wheelchair can let people retain some independence, if they desire it. The machine we’ve been developing can do that.” The control-sharing machine demonstrated by Dr. Argall on the Mission Unstoppable show uses sensors that take thousands of readings a second and figures out what the human user needs or wants. Dr. Argall noted that the wheelchair she demonstrated on the CBS show is still a work in progress. Like other medical assist devices the argallab has engineered, even when they have reached goals set by the research team, they have will have administrative hurdles and necessary FDA approval before taking them to market.
In addition to her research role, Dr. Argall teaches (Machine Learning & Artificial Intelligence) on the Evanston campus and is a faculty advisor for the Masters of Science in Robotics program. She has been widely recognized for her work and received the Faculty Early CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation in 2016. The same year she was profiled in Crain’s Chicago Business’s “40 Under 40” feature.
Being featured on Mission Unstoppable was “an honor and fun and also an eye-opener to someone unaccustomed to being on a production set for five hours to produce a five minute TV segment!” Dr. Argall laughed. “I do think it’s important to demonstrate to girls that they can have a career in STEM. The role of a scientist is questioning and solving evolving thought-provoking problems, and women are unfortunately greatly underrepresented in the fields of engineering, computer science, and robotics.” Dr. Argall recalled she was one of only four or five women at Carnegie Mellon matriculating with a graduate degrees in Robotics when she was there and thinks girls need early exposure and encouragement. “Liking innovation, being curious, and being technology-competent are a good foundation for pursuing STEM careers,” she said. Current statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor indicate that of people working as robotics engineers, only 19% are women.
In a world where drones deliver packages, where robots assist surgeons in complex operations, where elderly people sometimes purchase robotic pets for company, where the military uses robots to detect and disable explosives, and where cars can be driven by robots, girls and young women are still on the frontier of robotic engineering. Brenna Argall would say, “This may be your time to get involved in STEM.”