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Research That Requires an Arm and a Leg

Roger Gonzalez, Ph.D., P.E.

Written by Janet Ragland

Photographed by Tom Barnard

 

Looking at his well-worn passport, Dr. Roger Gonzalez thinks of the morning as a boy growing up in El Paso that he and his father drove into Mexico. His father reprimanded him for making fun of disabled beggars on the side of the road.
“There but for the grace of God, go you,” his father told him sternly. That lesson stayed with the young boy, who grew up to become a biomedical engineering professor with a heart to make the world a better place by easing human suffering.
 
Gonzalez’ passport today makes the world seem smaller. By the end of this summer, his passport will add stamps from Bolivia, Germany, Kenya, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and India, to the stamps from Ethiopia, Tanzania, Australia, Mexico, Bangladesh, and Sierra Leone—all from the last three years.
 
Gonzalez has traveled widely since 2004, as he has expanded the LEGS prosthetic program that provides low-cost, durable prosthetic legs to above-knee amputees in developing countries. LEGS originally stood for LeTourneau Engineering Global Solutions, but the program today is more about empowering than merely engineering.
 
He and his teams have traveled this summer to present professional papers on the LEGS program and to conduct training workshops with prosthetic and orthotic clinicians in developing countries. The goal is to transfer the LEGS program technology so they can replicate the work after the LEGS team of students, faculty and staff return home. Gonzalez believes it is better to teach a man to fish than to merely give him one.
 
The LEGS program is only one of Gonzalez’ research efforts. He also conducts cutting-edge research on an “intelligent arm” prosthesis.
 
Over the years, Gonzalez’ biomedical engineering students have developed a comprehensive research tool that represents the anatomical characteristics of the human arm. Students run tests on how it can be controlled to simulate movement, based on electrical impulses that simulate neural signals from the brain. Their experiments result in extensive data that quantify motion of elbow and wrist joints. These data help to verify computational models that could be used to produce an actual “intelligent arm” prosthesis for the future—one that operates more intuitively than merely mechanically.
 
Gonzalez’ students also are involved in hands-on research on an ACL-deficient knee, one in which the anterior cruciate ligament has been damaged. Data suggest that patients who have had ACL reconstructive surgery tend to be more likely to develop osteoarthritis. Gonzalez and his students are using computational biomechanical modeling to study ACL-injured knees before and after reconstructive surgery. They hope to show how, through adaptive muscular therapy, surgery can be avoided.
 
Gonzalez leads the university in research grant funding with over $2.5 million in grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, foundations and private donors. His student-researchers have been accepted to medical schools and graduate programs at some of the most prestigious schools all over the United States, including Johns Hopkins University, MIT, University of Texas, Stanford University, UCLA, Berkeley and Northwestern University in Chicago.
 
Research is rigorous, but so is learning to walk again after losing a leg.
 
For more information, see www.letu.edu/legs.
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