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Grosse Pointe Woods

April 24, 2014

Liggett student tackles cutting-edge scientific research

By April Lehmbeck
C & G Staff Writer

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Student Tommy Fair is doing research in prosthetics.

GROSSE POINTE WOODS — A researcher is hard at work in a laboratory studying a unique component of prosthetics research.

This researcher isn’t sitting in a lab at a major college. He’s doing his work at University Liggett, where he’s a high school senior.

Tommy Fair is researching pattern-recognition control in terms of prosthetics.

“The technology he’s researching is so new, it hasn’t been used yet by doctors,” said Michelle Martin, University Liggett’s director of marketing and communications. 

“It’s still in testing,” Fair said in a news release. “Pattern recognition is an emerging technology. In my research, I’ve been able to isolate the index finger using a prosthetic electrode.”

This type of research could lead to greater dexterity and control of the prosthetics used by amputees. According to information from Liggett, Fair has created a computer program and uses an electrode that he attaches to his arm.

“I’m working on isolating the signals between the fingers of the hand,” Fair said.

Fair’s work is part of the school’s Academic Research Program.

After preparation through their years at Liggett, seniors are diving into their research projects that range across the curriculum.

The work of students at Liggett is unheard of in many other high schools. They’ll present their work during a program next month.

“The work that our students are doing in the Academic Research Program is, in general, the type of work that most students will not encounter until late in their undergraduate careers,” Associate Dean of Faculty Bart Bronk said in a news release. “The level and depth of their sustained inquiry into important research questions is really uncharted territory for most high schoolers.”

When choosing a field of research, Fair’s mother, Linda Crandall, a doctor, inspired him toward his field, but he said it was a good field to choose because he enjoys robots and research.

He had another reason for choosing prosthetics.

“I played piano for 12 years, so what if I lost my hand?” he said.

Fair is considering his options for next year and is leaning toward either Princeton or the University of Michigan to study engineering or physics. He’s not sure whether he’ll be able to further his research in prosthetics, because he said his research field would be limited to the types of research going on at the university he will attend.

Fair is working with mentors at Liggett and with Nathan Kappa, a prostheticist with Bremer Prosthetics in Flint, whom Fair sought out to gain support from through his project.

“I’ve made a few visits,” he said of his work with Kappa. “They’ve all been pretty fruitful. I’ve learned a lot talking to him.”

University Liggett teacher Ben Lampe is a mentor at the school, and Fair said he has helped him with electronics and refining what he can do. He said he’s been very helpful.

“In my work with Tommy, we have been focused on acquiring an electrical signal from the human body,” Lampe said in an email. “When Tommy started working with me, he had some electrodes and a plan on how to use those electrodes to detect a signal. 

“As a physics teacher, I was able to help with circuits and signal amplifiers, but I knew very little about the electrical signals of the human body,” he said. “Tommy and I worked as a great pair, where he could supply the biological information, and I could help with the circuit design and construction.” 

Lampe explained the scientific process they went through to get to a point where they would be able to see the signal because of the very low voltage from signals from the body.

After working through the challenges of singling out the signals from the body, they achieved success.

“Tommy acquired a special electrode from one of his other mentors, and we connected that electrode to our system,” Lampe said. “This new electrode had filters built into it, and it was clear that this new electrode was the way to go. 

“We are now at a point where we have good signal acquisition, and Tommy’s task has shifted to programming,” Lampe said. “As we await delivery of a few more of these prosthetic-specific electrodes, Tommy is working on the Arduino programming. He hopes to connect a series of these electrodes to a computer that has been programmed to perform certain actions upon detecting a signal from one of the electrodes.”

Like all scientific research, the process isn’t straightforward and simple, but takes a great deal of trial and error.

“Throughout this effort, Tommy has had to shift gears a few times, but he has consistently been focused on his goals,” Lampe said. “He knows exactly what he wants to do, and we have been working together to get him there. 

“Sometimes, the design process requires a change of plans; sometimes, it requires waiting for new equipment, but there is always something to be learned,” he said. “Engineers seek to solve real-world problems, and in that process, new information often comes to light. That new information can completely transform the path to your goal, but it doesn’t change the goal.”

You can reach C & G Staff Writer April Lehmbeck at alehmbeck@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1043.