Contributed by Agnetha Korevaar, Callaghan Innovation.
I was one of those kids who was always playing with Lego, adventuring on the farm or helping Dad fix broken equipment; curious to know how things work, eager to explore, and keen to make new and improved inventions. So when I heard about mechatronics engineering (mechanical engineering + electronics + software smarts = robots), I thought it seemed like the perfect way to use science to create things which are helpful in day to day life.
It was in the final year of university that I got my first taste of rehab tech. Alongside standard engineering courses, I had the opportunity to learn about human physiology and how diseases such as stroke can affect it. For the final year project, our student team came up with a device to help people who have had a stroke with arm rehabilitation exercises. Guided by an expert mentor, we developed the idea for an affordable device for in-home use, so that people would have more opportunities to do their rehabilitation exercises and (hopefully!) be able to regain more of the function they’d lost.
Fast-forward a few years and I was working to develop new technologies at a Christchurch company who design the electronics on powered wheelchairs and mobility scooters (Dynamic Controls). While there I gained valuable technical skills from fellow engineers, user experience designers, and product managers. I was also encouraged to think outside the box and develop new technology that could improve the quality of life for people using wheelchairs and mobility scooters. We had the opportunity to spend time using these mobility aids, and feel firsthand some of the frustrations. Another key way we got user insights was interviewing people who are dependent on these devices every day and hearing of their joys and difficulties. Putting these experiences together, we could figure out where crazy ideas and new technology could help the most.
Now I’m a research engineer at Callaghan Innovation, helping innovative businesses across New Zealand to turn their ideas into real-life prototypes. I’ve joined the MedTech CoRE - a network of researchers from both clinical and engineering backgrounds, who are developing new medical technologies. The theme of stroke rehab has continued, and I’ve been helping to develop a new version of the arm rehabilitation device. Over the past year, I’ve been working together with speech and language therapists and people who use speech generating devices (SGDs), to figure out how we can give Māori SGD users a te reo voice and the ability to express themselves using their first language. These are the kinds of projects that excite me - opportunities where tech could make a very real difference for those living with disability.
So what’s next? I’d love more opportunities to chat with clinicians and people with lived experience of injury or disability, to hear about areas where technology could make a huge difference, and then, to turn those ideas into reality.
Agnetha can be contacted via: Agnetha.Korevaar@callaghaninnovation.govt.nz