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UMBC robotics student invents help for those with disabilities like hers


Kavita Krishnaswamy had labored through seven years of coursework in math and computer sciences to achieve a perfect 4.0 grade-point average. The University of Maryland Baltimore County graduate student had invented robotic devices that are discussed around the world. She had spent three years narrowing the focus of her doctoral dissertation.

But when the day arrived to defend her dissertation proposal before the panel of senior academics who would allow her to proceed, she never showed up.

She sent her robot.

Krishnaswamy lives with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), a rare genetic disorder in which a breakdown of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord prevents the brain from sending the messages that direct muscular movement. She defended her proposal the way she participates in every class and lecture — through the Beam, a rolling, two-way-telecasting robot that she operates from 16 miles away.

Paralyzed from the neck down but for a few muscles in her right hand, the 35-year-old Columbia, Md., woman needs round-the-clock care and rarely leaves her home. But she spends her days and nights designing devices that, like the robot she uses to visit UMBC and points beyond, help those living with severe disabilities to attain greater independence.

Already a recipient of Ford and National Science Foundation fellowships, she has earned additional funding for her research from two more awards: the Microsoft Fellowship and the Google Lime Scholarship.

Krishnaswamy designs robotic devices to allow severely disabled people to move their arms and legs simply by moving a computer trackball, speaking or changing their facial expressions. She is pursuing a doctorate in computer science.

“I’m always asking how technology can help a person who has a disability become more independent,” she said.

Krishnaswamy, who is due to earn her doctorate next year, is working with one eye on the clock. Her illness is progressive.It could rob her of her remaining mobility — and her ability to breathe — with little warning.

Changing the world is a lot to ask of anyone, let alone a person who needs a machine to connect with it and has no idea whether her time on Earth is numbered in decades, years or weeks.

Those who know Krishnaswamy say that if anyone can invent a way, she can.

Krishnaswamy was born in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the daughter of Ramesh Krishnaswamy, an aerospace engineer, and his wife, Pushpa, who has a bachelor’s in economics.

Like most parents of children with SMA, they were unaware that both carried the genetic mutation that — if passed on by two parents — can trigger the disease. The malady affects 1 in every 10,000 births.

In healthy individuals, a gene known as SMN1 produces the “survival-to-motor neuron,” a protein that then generates the specialized nerve cells that control most muscles. People with SMA can’t animate those muscles, leaving them to atrophy and eventually become paralyzed from disuse.

Sixty percent have the severest form of SMA, Type I, which appears during infancy, makes breathing difficult, and usually causes death by age 2. Another 20 percent have Type II, which materializes after a child learns to sit up and prevents further development.

Type II patients never crawl, walk or stand. All settle into a plateau of gradually decreasing strength.

All need extensive caregiving. A few survive into their 50s.

Thomas Crawford, a pediatric neurologist with Johns Hopkins Medicine who has treated Krishnaswamy since she was 12, says her condition is not unusual for a Type II adult.

Story from The Washington Post.

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