From Sports To Science: Stanford's Kuchenbecker

By Brian Anthony Price

One of the high points of the 25-year history of women's athletics in the Pac-10 was certainly Stanford volleyball's back-to-back national championship wins in 1996 and 1997.

Katherine J. Kuchenbecker, a member of both those squads, said her playing days helped prepare her for the challenges she faces every day as a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

"I enjoy understanding how the world works and how things move and behave," she says. "I'm also fascinated by the ability of engineers to create technology that humans can use to enhance their lives. My experience playing volleyball at Stanford has definitely enhanced my skills in the lab."

So what exactly do volleyball and mechanics have to do with one another?

"A lot, actually," explains Kuchenbecker. "In my lab we work with many complicated systems with sensors, actuators, and computer programs that all need to come together perfectly in order to function correctly and achieve the intended effect. Likewise a team, made up of individuals with varying roles, need to work together towards a common goal."

Kuchenbecker, a bench player at Stanford, relished her role. She recognized its importance to the overall success of the squad.

"Whether it's the outside hitter who's expected to get the kills, or the defensive specialist who passes the ball, or the coach calling the plays, we all had a job to do that benefited the overall success of the team," Kuchenbecker says. "For me, it was playing against the starting team [in practice] and trying to serve [teammates] Kerri Walsh or Kristin Folkl off the court so they'd be prepared and ready to stare down the opponent on game day."

That sacrifice and commitment to the greater good is evident today in Kuchenbecker's research. She was recently named one of the 'Brilliant 10' top young American scientists by Popular Science magazine for her accomplishments in the world of robotics.

Now at Penn, Kuchenbecker runs the Haptics group where she educates students on the science of touch.

"Many of our experiments revolve around a human interacting with some sort of distant environment through a robot, as in robotic surgery," Kuchenbecker says. "These projects require two types of technological improvements: creating a natural relationship between the movement of the human and that of the robot and then making that interaction as realistic as possible for the human operator. We want to go beyond just pushing a button by designing robots that can mimic your motion and let you accurately feel what they feel."

Kuchenbecker is also working on a new approach to deliver high quality haptic feedback for users in computer games and medical simulation called haptography (haptic photography).

The process begins with adding sensors to tools that can be used to touch a real object and then record the data that a person feels.

"How you moved, how hard you pushed, is the texture rough or smooth, whether the object was hard or soft are all things we measure," says Kuchenbecker. "With that data we can make mathematical models to measure those interactions and simulate what it should feel like in a 3-D world."

So how can this technology improve our planet? From Kuchenbecker's explanation it would seem the applications are endless.

"A surgeon will be able to train his or her hand to be steadier and ascend the learning curve at a faster rate and improve confidence when going into the operating room by performing a virtual operation ahead of time," she says.

Kuchenbecker also explains that medical students will benefit by augmenting their surgical skills in a virtual world, not on cadavers.

"There are limitations on the hours that medical students and residents are now allowed to spend, but the clinical expectations when they graduate are still very high," Kuchenbecker says. "Getting them enough time and practice with a variety of patients is a challenge and that's where this technology can really help. We can create simulations that enable a student to practice making injections on a simulator before trying on a human. It's a chance to master their skills before applying them to the real thing."

On the flip side, the lives of patients recovering from a stroke for instance, could also improve.

"The technology can also be applied to menial household tasks like putting away dishes. For people who have suffered from strokes those tasks may prove to be extremely challenging," Kuchenbecker says. "With this technology they can receive assistance without having to have another person in the house. We can also measure their movements, record data and simultaneously assist and rehabilitate them. We can help them to become more coordinated over time and recover faster."

So does this all mean that patients will one day be operated on by robots?

"No," says Kuchenbecker. "Patients vary so drastically and surgery is really only 30% hand-eye coordination. So much of what a surgeon does is decision-making, reacting and processing data from an examination. That can't be replicated by a robot. Robots excel in automation as in a robot on an assembly line manufacturing cars. Patients aren't repetitive and require adaptation throughout treatment."

But as haptics research continues, the range of possibilities continues to grow.

"More and more I feel like this knowledge could also be applied to athletics," Kuchenbecker says. "We could record the form of a pitcher, analyze it mathematically to measure the strengths and weaknesses of their movement and figure out how an individual coordinates their muscles. It could be a tremendous tool for a coach analyzing one of his athletes."

The technology may also help us to understand why individuals are left handed and right handed. Imagine if cultivating an ambidextrous athlete became a tool in future athletic programs.

Kuchenbecker traces her research and accomplishments back to what she learned as a collegiate student-athlete.

"Stanford is where I cultivated my mental toughness and commitment to excellence," she says. "Those are skills you need in any major endeavor, not just sports."

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Photos by: Jimmy Sastra and Kevin Monko, Kelsh Wilson Design

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