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A big hand and a pat on the shoulder: AIM Tech awards recognize major prosthetic advances by Creighton graduate, faculty member

Jorge Zuniga, Ph.D., and a Cyborg Beast prosthetic hand.From the time he was a toddler, Adam Carson has been a tinkerer.

He took his toys apart to see what made them work. He opened up the family computer to observe how what appeared on the screen started in the esoteric hums and flashes of a circuit board.

So when one of Carson’s Creighton University exercise science professors, Jorge Zuniga, Ph.D., brought a 3-D printed prosthetic hand to class one day during Carson’s junior year, that tactile learner in him jumped at a chance for closer exploration.

“Dr. Z brought in an early prototype and showed it around to us and I thought, ‘This is pretty cool,’” said Carson, who graduated in May 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in exercise science. “I wanted to be a part of what they were doing. After class, I went up to Dr. Z and said, ‘This stuff is awesome. I don’t know much about it, but I want to learn.’”

From that moment, Carson became an integral part of Zuniga’s 3D Research & Innovation laboratory on the Creighton campus which, for the past three years, has been turning out affordable, 3-D printed prosthetic hands — known as Cyborg Beast prosthetics — and putting open-source software on the Internet to help others do the same, the first such foray into this kind of prosthetic technology ever attempted.

While an undergraduate, Carson helped make an elbow device for patients at Johns Hopkins Medical Center, then traveled to the campus in Baltimore to give a presentation at an institution widely regarded as one of the world’s most prestigious and innovative in medical technology.

Carson followed that triumph with the creation of a 3-D printed prosthetic shoulder that came at the request of a young boy in Omaha whose family couldn’t afford a nearly $40,000 standard prosthetic shoulder. The new device again revolutionized prosthetics and earned Carson recognition as the 2015 AIM Student Tech Innovator of the Year, an award bestowed upon him in Omaha during an October ceremony. The awards recognize cutting-edge efforts in the Omaha community.

“The spirit — the soul — of the project is hard work,” said Zuniga, who nominated Carson and was himself recognized at the same ceremony as the 2015 AIM Tech Educator of the Year. “Adam embodies that. He works the design while I’m in my office trying to secure the financing for these things. I went to him and said, ‘Can we make a shoulder? We don’t know anything about shoulders.’ All he said to me was, ‘Let’s do it.’ And off he went. That’s why he got this award. How could you not give it to him?”

Adam Carson, who earned a B.S. in exercise science from Creighton in 2015, accepts the 2015 AIM Tech Student of the Year award.Carson, who grew up in Elkhorn, Nebraska, is the son of Mark and Karen Carson. In part to feed the insatiable curiosity of their son and to promote a predilection for all things mechanical and technological in other children, the Carsons founded an educational toy company, Fat Brain Toys, when Adam was still in elementary school.

“I started out playing with magnets and was always taking things apart,” Carson said. “My parents noticed that. My dad was big on toys that encouraged that and I was exposed to a lot of different mechanical things as a kid.”

Carson now works as a research assistant in the 3D Research & Innovation laboratory, working on new Cyborg Beast projects and continuing to put the open source software out into the public domain for people to get affordable prosthetics.

He’s contemplating a move into graduate or professional school, while also helping Zuniga expand the laboratory’s offerings — they’re now working on fashioning lower-limb prosthetics and orthotics — and also melding the lab work with his parent’s toy store. Zuniga said the lab and Fat Brain are collaborating on a kit for youngsters to create their own hands.

“This would not be necessarily for children who are missing a hand or arm, but for all children who have an interest in these kinds of mechanics,” Zuniga said. “We’re trying to cultivate that next generation of scientists, the next Adams, if you will, who will come into the world and think of new ways to get things done. It takes very smart people to do this.”

Taking home awards for their work pales in comparison to the enterprises themselves, Carson and Zuniga said. The next big thing is always just around the corner and the opportunity to help someone is always present.

To that end, keeping Cyborg Beast prosthetics affordable and an ever-open door is of primary concern as the lab and its projects generate more interest. Zuniga continues to partner with Omaha-based suppliers and retailers with each prosthetic device made and said he hopes to keep the innovation right here at home.

“We are at the forefront of this thing,” Zuniga said. “It’s serious. It’s going somewhere. And that’s because of the talent we have walking around the halls at Creighton. But we want to keep it small. We want it to lower the prices of prosthetics so these things are available to those who need them. Smaller partners allow us to do that.”

And earning a technology award with a degree in exercise science — rather than with an engineering or biomechanics degree — Carson said, opened some eyes on what’s happening in the melding of biology and technology.

“At the reception after the ceremony, people asked me what my degree was in and when I said exercise science, there were a few who were a little taken aback,” he said. “But there were also people who could see how that would relate. Knowledge of the human body, combined with technology, help us to make what we’re making. You need both sides to make it work.”

Therein lies the heart of innovation, Zuniga said.

“This is more than technology,” he said. “This is innovation and innovation can come from anywhere. You take one field and another field and put them together and make something new. We work with people from physical therapy, occupational therapy, physics, environmental sciences, the medical school. Different disciplines, different levels of expertise. Throw them all together in this lab and that’s how we’re able to do what we do.”

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