Accomplished Undergrad Improving People’s Lives

7/21/2016 By Laura Schmitt, CS @ ILLINOIS

CS freshman Ananya Cleetus's innovative work with prosthetic limbs earned awards and a trip to the White House.

Written by By Laura Schmitt, CS @ ILLINOIS

CS freshman Ananya Cleetus is passionate about applying technology to solve real-world problems and improve people’s lives. Her innovative work with prosthetic limbs has garnered awards and even taken her to a national science fair at the White House.

Cleetus’ interest in assistive technology began several summers ago when she was visiting her grandparents in New Delhi, India, and volunteering with a charitable organization that provides free prosthetics to amputees and polio victims. After seeing how the Jaipur prosthetic foot was manufactured and fitted, Cleetus was inspired to improve the device.

Ananya Cleetus and her father stand beside her display at the White House.
Ananya Cleetus and her father stand beside her display at the White House.

She returned home to Pittsburgh with a sample prosthetic, but she soon realized that she needed help.

“I was struggling to find resources at school,” said Cleetus, who resorted to cold calling and emailing faculty at nearby universities. “It got to be a pretty tough process to find someone with the time and resources to help me out.”

She eventually connected with a Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute professor, who provided advice and lab access so Cleetus could experiment with the foot’s design. In the end, she received a patent for an improved prosthetic foot by adding a spring to the ankle joint, enhancing overall flexibility and mobility.

On her own, Cleetus continued to pursue her interest in prosthetics by working on an affordable robotic hand designed for leprosy victims in India. “A lot of people overlook leprosy, but a quarter million cases are reported annually in India alone,” she said. “A lot of people who suffer from it are put into leper colonies and are isolated from society, which makes it even harder for them to get access to medical care.”

Based on open source 3D CAD files for a prosthetic hand designed by InMoov in France, Cleetus developed a cost-effective prototype hand and control mechanism that she 3D printed and programmed herself. “I wrote the code, set up the circuits and overall design, [and] constructed the touch sensor glove,” Cleetus said. She was nominated and selected to present the prosthetic hand project at the annual White House science fair in May 2014—one of only 32 students nationwide.

“That was an incredible experience,” said Cleetus, who met President Obama, as well as some of her science idols, including TV star and educator Bill Nye the Science Guy and Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway and founder of the FIRST Robotics competition.

Realizing that she probably wasn’t alone in trying to find experienced scientific guidance earlier in her endeavors, Cleetus and another student founded a company to match aspiring young inventors with mentors at universities and in industry—a LinkedIn-type site for high school students called Magikstra.

“The whole point of my startup was to help ease the transition for students getting into the business and research worlds,” said Cleetus, who won the 2015 Startup Entrepreneur Award sponsored by the Carnegie Science Center.

Today, Cleetus continues to work on the robotic hand by improving its grip and designing her own circuit board controller, which she believes could reduce the hand’s costs. She’s active in her residence hall’s innovation learning community, a couple ACM Special Interest Groups, the student chapter of Engineers Without Borders, and the Women in CS tech team. She’s also competing in the Cozad New Venture Competition sponsored by the Technology Entrepreneur Center on campus. In the future, she aims to conduct research on soft robotics.

According to Cleetus, she’s pleased with her CS @ ILLINOIS experience so far. “I really like the fact that even though Illinois has a very competitive engineering program, it’s also a very open, relaxed environment.”

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This story was published July 21, 2016.