An assisted step forward: Max Burns talks about the process, and teamwork, of invention

Max Burns holds his SuperUROP project, an instrumented walking cane. Photo credit: Randall Garnick

When people hear the term “inventor”, they often picture someone working alone: Ben Franklin and his kite; Edison and his lightbulb. But Max Burns would like you to picture something else: a team. 

The SuperUROP participant from Logan, Ohio just walked with his degree in Mechanical Engineering this spring. Along the way, Burns’s work has been recognized by multiple entities: as an undergraduate, he was a recipient of the Arthur J. Samberg scholarship, and of the Prince Innovation Prize from the Mechanical Engineering Department for his SuperUROP project, an instrumented walking cane. For his coming stint in graduate school at Stanford University, Burns has already received the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, the Stanford Graduate Fellowship, and the Stanford EDGE (Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education) Fellowship. All this support is fitting, because Max Burns is all about giving people the support they need. We sat down with him to learn more. 

For your SuperUROP project, you built a walking cane with sensing instruments that could gather data about a patient’s balance as they used it. Where did you begin with the development of this project—what inspired it?

I began this project the year before joining SuperUROP, when I was looking for a UROP experience where I could explore assistive technology research.  I joined the MIT Newman Laboratory for Human Rehabilitation, where I’ve been advised by graduate student Kaymie Shiozawa and Professor Neville Hogan. I was excited to work with the instrumented cane, because my grandmother relies on a walking cane and struggles with balance issues and falls. After I learned more about balance, I better understood how dangerous falling is for older adults, and the way mobility limitations take away independence and limit millions of people’s personal freedom. From what I learned during this project, I’ve decided to focus on lower limb mobility assistance in my graduate work.

In terms of the project’s development, the cane was actually built by a prior SuperUROP student, Emily Skilling, in 2020, and had been used by my graduate student advisor for some experiments since then. When I joined the project I was tasked with finding some way to quantify static balance ability using the instrumented cane, beyond the data collection which had already been performed. My main contribution–and the focus of my work during SuperUROP–was the development of a method to predict postural sway velocity, which is a metric that provides insight into balance health and fall risk in older adults. 

I began by collecting validation data from sixteen young adults, and I designed a feature computation and selection pipeline, which ultimately made a prediction of a subject’s sway velocity for a window of data using linear regression. After finding success with the validation subjects, we moved on to working with eight participants over 65.

Burns offers a closer look at the cane, which can help measure movements that would be imperceptible to watching humans.

Your SuperUROP project isn’t the only way you’ve explored assistive technology, correct–it’s another outgrowth of your primary research interest. 

Yes! I helped restart the MIT Assistive Technology Club, where we pair small teams of MIT students with a person who has a disability, who works with them as a codesigner to develop a prototype that improves their daily life. The teams meet with their codesigner every week, to ensure that the project is guided by the needs of the person who will use the device or software. I worked as the club’s project manager, and met with leads from our six teams each week to provide guidance in technical and logistical aspects of their projects, which are really diverse.

Learn more about the MIT Assistive Technology Club

A robotic arm for meals

One team was developing robotic self-feeding devices for two people with limited mobility from the neck down. They designed and built a robotic arm, which featured a custom utensil at the end for effectively dispensing a variety of food in a safe way. This project will be continuing this fall!

A LLM-powered visual aid

Our second team worked on an app for people who are blind, which delivers the most important information about the scene in front of them using better LLM prompting and computer vision. The framework for this project is now finished, and will be finishing up this summer!

An accommodation explainer

A third team designed an app that a person with a disability could use to design a page that has information about their accommodations, which could be accessed through an NFC tag attached to their wheelchair. The goal was to provide a faster way for new people to understand a person’s needs, without the person having to verbally explain over and over when they would prefer not to.

Mods for wheelchairs

The fourth team was working with a person who uses a wheelchair, and is interested in producing an open-source toolkit for improving hospital-style wheelchairs in low-income communities. The hospital-style wheelchairs commonly used around the world are cheaply made, and due to their design can result in serious stress injuries when a person uses them for long periods of time. This team was focused on making simple modifications to wheelchairs that use locally available materials and machines, and will be continuing their work next semester.

A better game controller

Another team was designing a one-handed video game controller with a woman who has partial paralysis. This project is almost complete, and has focused on PCB design, and making a working controller which is comfortable to use for long periods of time.

Memory assistance for faces

Our last team built a memory assistance app with a codesigner who struggled to remember faces. This app was designed to help the user quickly narrow down what a person’s name was based on characteristics and the circumstances that they were interacting with the user.

Tell me about a problem or roadblock you encountered during your project, and how you solved it.

Human subject data is inherently noisy and balance is very complex, which makes learning behavior with limited amounts of data difficult. I struggled initially in my project to make any sense of the data, and tried to find consistent trends through experimenting with different balance metrics with some success. I ultimately found that machine learning methods are incredibly good at extracting information that would be impossible for a person to see. Although I did not have prior experience, I dedicated time to learning and becoming comfortable with data processing and machine learning. I also read through previous journal articles to better understand how to extract useful features in human balance.

If you were to develop your cane project even further, what would be your next steps?

I think that with a combination of static balance assessment and gait analysis, you could construct an even stronger prediction of a person’s balance health and future fall risk which would be of interest to physicians. Also, the cane is intended to be used in everyday life and provide continuous assessment, so I would like to organize a much larger study where participants use the instrumented cane over the course of a month. Most falls occur in the home, so I think it would be particularly interesting to learn about balance in activities of daily living through the take-home walking cane.

What surprised you about lab work, or was different from your expectations? What do you think younger students (say, in high school) should know about doing STEM research?

I think one thing that surprised me about research (and invention in general) is how much is built upon the work of people who came before. When I was in high school, I would often try to “figure things out” without help from other resources, because when you’re in school working on homework, Googling questions is considered cheating! The biggest part of research that I came to understand is that an individual researcher is just one part of a global community, who are working together to achieve amazing things. Each paper or discovery is one piece in a large picture, which eventually leads to a major jump forwards. When you think about being a scientist or an engineer, it’s crucial to remember that you can and should rely on your collaborators, and the thousands of hours of work others have already done.

Tell me about the experience of presenting your research at the SuperUROP poster session. What did preparing your poster and talking with outside folks teach you about scientific communication?

The poster session was a great way to collect and organize the story of my project, and speaking to people from outside of my research was an excellent way to generate ideas going forward. I had the chance to speak with multiple people about their personal experience with balance issues; either their own, or of their family. My advisors in SuperUROP really helped me develop my poster, and getting direct constructive feedback on the aspects of both my elevator pitch and poster design was extremely helpful for improving my ability as a presenter. The poster session itself was also good practice, repeating a pitch for an hour is a great way to identify what is and isn’t important about my work!

“An individual researcher is just one part of a global community, who are working together to achieve amazing things.”

Max Burns
SuperUROP participant

Did your SuperUROP experience affect how you thought about possible future career paths?

Yes, SuperUROP helped to confirm that I want to continue academic research as a graduate student this fall! I also aim to be a professor someday, and the seminars held in class helped to provide a weekly perspective of the paths that MIT professors have taken to succeed.  It was fun to hear from so many different people over the past year, and I learned a lot about the technical aspects of their work too! I think it’s incredibly helpful to learn more about cutting edge technology for any field.

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