UCalgary mobilizes students, researchers and robots to help kids thrive

Amanda Rande, left, and Mahika Sharma analyze the data to provide feedback on Em
Amanda Rande, left, and Mahika Sharma analyze the data to provide feedback on Emme’s gait. - V Strategies Inc. photos
Biomedical engineering students apply technology to improve quality of life for kids with movement impairments

Emme Comeau is 10 years old and already a veteran participant in research.

"The first movement study I joined was in 2020. I have a curve in my spine and tend to tip backwards, it also impacts how I walk," says Emme. "The robot-device I’m using now lifts my foot for me and swings it forward, so I don’t drag my toes. With the machine, I have the perfect gait. Hopefully this will help retrain my brain and my body will learn to walk better."

Emme is teamed up with Samuel Finnegan, a graduate student in the Adaptive Bionics Lab in the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering who is collaborating with the Better Mobility and Pediatric Onset of Neuromotor Impairments labs (PONI Lab) located at Alberta Children’s Hospital (ACH). 

"Assistive walkers have been shown to improve gait and are used as a rehabilitation method. It’s adaptable to anyone," says Finnegan. "What I love about research is that it’s an endless scope of possibility for finding solutions for people who need those solutions. Finding avenues that we can approach creating a better tomorrow."

Biomedical engineering student Mahika Sharma is doing an internship comparing new markerless motion capture to marker-based motion capture, the current industry standard. The new technology could make instrumented gait analysis easier for kids like Emme.

"It’s actually quite uncomfortable and annoying for me because they have to place the marker correctly and there’s a lot of poking to find this certain spot in my pelvis," she says. 

Sharma says marker-based reflective stickers need to be placed precisely to accurately assess the joint centres. In the C.H. Riddell Family Movement Assessment Centre at ACH the markerless technology involves eight synchronized cameras that record Comeau walking. This data is processed with software that uses an AI algorithm to detect the joint centers, allowing for the calculation of things like joint angles. 

"Markerless motion capture would make the data collection process ideally much faster and much easier," says Sharma, with the Schulich School of Engineering. "It’s been eye-opening to see this side of the industry. Often, I’m behind the scenes doing technical work. Seeing things in real time through Emme’s eyes gives me a different perspective. I love doing this work."

Real-world education in the PONI Lab

Sharma’s internship is overseen by two supervisors: UCalgary Elizabeth Condliffe, MD, PhD, and Ion Robu, a biomedical equipment technologist with Alberta Health Services. Sharma and Condliffe collaborated to design an internship opportunity after working together on a summer research project back in 2022 at the PONI Lab. 

"I would tell other students to not be shy when it comes to networking with professors," says Sharma. "It’s always great to have connections to learn from and gain experience. Expose yourself to things like career fairs, and network whenever you can. Give yourself opportunity to really figure out what you want to do." 

Finnegan’s project involves industry, supported by a MITACS Accelerate Grant. He and supervisor Dr. Emily Rogers-Bradley, PhD, and co-supervisor Dr. Ranita Manocha, MD, are working with Bionic Power to test and analyze a mobility aid, called the Agilik. The device is being used to improve Emme’s walking patterns. 

"The company is still a startup, initially our study involves participants living with cerebral palsy, however Bionic Power is starting to see all the different people this can affect, including individuals living with spina bifida and people who have experienced a stroke," says Finnegan. 

Leveraging partnerships, expertise and philanthropy to help kids live their best lives 

Emme’s mom is on a patient engagement team with the PONI Lab and has witnessed the positive changes in her daughter through participating in research. 

"With each project she’s gaining confidence in her abilities and also getting an understanding of what her disability is and how she can change her perspective on it, and approach to it to walk better," says Alli Comeau. "I think it’s increasingly important for future generations of children with disabilities for us to do as much as we can to learn and to develop new products. If kids don’t try them, if we don’t learn from children, then the future generations won’t benefit from that." 

Condliffe says improving the care of people with lifelong disabilities requires the support and input of families, combined with transdisciplinary approaches and collaborations. 

"Our lab focuses on individuals with physical disabilities as a result of neurologic disorders that start as children," says Condliffe, with the Cumming School of Medicine. "We need to be better at finding the right treatment for the right person. That requires understanding what causes difficulties with movement and how interventions may help. That also means understanding what our patients need including the barriers they face."

Emme says one of the research projects she participated in is helping other kids now. "I was part of this pilot program for movement intensive personal training. I wanted to get stronger to be a better baseball player."

She adds the research team created a specialized program for her. "I worked on running. I had a bungee around my waist, and they’d pull back and I’d run as fast as I could. At the end they were digging in their heels into the ground to stop me. The more research the better."

The pilot project has evolved into a community-based program offered twice a year to kids with cerebral palsy. It is run in partnership with ACH and community fitness centres. 

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