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HST student DiLorenzo gets $30,000 Lemelson prize

Daniel DiLorenzo with one of his first inventions, a robotic arm measured to his own hand and fingers.
Daniel DiLorenzo with one of his first inventions, a robotic arm measured to his own hand and fingers.
Photo / L. Barry Hetherington

A dual PhD and MD candidate who has spent much of his life building electronic circuitry, using it to control robots and later help paraplegics walk, was selected as this year's $30,000 Lemelson Student Prize winner.

Daniel J. DiLorenzo will receive the PhD in mechanical engineering and the MD through the Harvard/MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology (HST) program in June. He said his parents "knew they were in trouble when at the age of two and a half I started asking them the color of electricity." The young DiLorenzo "wasn't satisfied with the answers" he got, so he began his own experiments of sticking screwdrivers and other tools into electrical sockets to get to know his subject.

The judges of the Lemelson-Student prize selected Mr. DiLorenzo "for his commitment to the research and development of innovations in the health sciences arena and for a track record of creating novel devices and technologies in his field." He accepted the prize -- awarded each year to an MIT student who demonstrates remarkable inventiveness and who can serve as a role model for aspiring young inventors -- at a February 11 press conference at the Faculty Club.

In his introductory remarks about Mr. DiLorenzo, Dean of Engineering Thomas Magnanti jokingly alluded to the 32-year-old's already long list of inventions -- "he's remarkably well preserved for a man of 70."

When he was in fifth grade, Mr. DiLorenzo built a device that transmitted and received sound on an infrared beam. (He was quick to admit that he didn't design the circuit, but found the schematic in a book.) When he showed that invention to his teacher, she said, "Why don't you build something useful?" and encouraged him to come up with a device to measure the noise level of the chattering students in her classroom. He did and it worked.

His project for the eighth-grade science fair was a human-sized rolling robot with extendable arms and grasping fingers. In subsequent years, he designed more complex robots, leading up to the four-legged walking robot he built in 12th grade.

At the press conference, Mr. DiLorenzo thanked his parents, Henry and Marian DiLorenzo of Fort Washington, MD, for "driving me literally hundreds of times to get all the parts I needed" to build those robots. "I think my parents were the only ones in the country that were happier than their kid when I got my driver's license," he said.

For his SB thesis, Mr. DiLorenzo developed a digital control system and gait sequencer to enable that 12th-grade robot to walk. He then applied that knowledge to humans on a project with his advisor, former Professor William Durfee, that used external electrodes to stimulate muscle movement in a young man with spinal cord injuries. By stimulating a series of muscles in just the right sequence, Mr. DiLorenzo was able to help the paraplegic walk in a laboratory setting.

Seeking to improve the results of the external stimulation which he described as "imprecise," Mr. DiLorenzo began working with David Edell, a principal research scientist in HST, on implantable neural prostheses, and on the neural control of arm movement with Emilio Bizzi, the Eugene McDermott Professor in the Brain Sciences and Human Behavior.

He also helped design and build a four-wheeled omnidirectional robot (SM thesis) that looks like a flat metal box with wheels, designed to launch anti-tank munitions in a battlefield.

Mr. DiLorenzo holds two patents. The first is for an electronic enuresis (bedwetting) treatment system that sounds an alarm within seconds of getting wet. During his undergraduate years, he received FDA approval for the invention and set up a company that manufactured and sold the device for several years.

His other patent is for a medical device that controls swelling in brain tissue during surgery, an unusual but very serious occurrence. One of the first surgeries he "scrubbed in on" as a student was the removal of a brain tumor from a child. By the end of the 90-minute operation, the boy's brain had swelled dangerously.

"I thought, there's got to be a way to fix this," said Mr. DiLorenzo, who sketched one of his patented designs before leaving the operating room that day. "The surgeon in charge thought I was sleeping and told me to wake up" because I was looking down at the sketch, he recalled.

Mr. DiLorenzo holds the SB (1987) and SM (1988) in electrical engineering from MIT. After getting his PhD and MD, he'll begin a neurosurgery residency program in July at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, where he plans to continue his present mode of research with neural prostheses on two different projects, peripheral nerve implants and microelectrode brain implants.

"It's really fortuitous" that there are two major laboratories at the same university doing this type of research, said Mr. DiLorenzo. He hopes to be able to extend the two years of research built into the seven-year program by working in the lab in his spare time during his clinical residency. He said there'll always be time to work "on the weekend or at night when you're not on call."

As one of the relatively few people who bridges the worlds of medicine and engineering, he'll be in a perfect position to continue designing medical devices and seeing them through the prototype and marketing phases.

He advises young people interested in inventing to be creative, persistent and passionate about their work and to be prepared to deal with setbacks. "Since things don't always work the first time, you have to step back and think broadly and unconventionally about how a problem can be solved," he said.

The Lemelson-MIT Awards Program was established in 1994 by the late independent inventor Jerome H. Lemelson and his wife Dorothy. The program presents an annual $500,000 prize for invention and innovation, as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award for distinguished careers in inventing. The recipients of those two awards will be announced on April 22 in San Francisco. In addition, a new award for high school students, the Lemelson Invention Apprenticeship, was created last year.

The program is based at the Sloan School of Management and administered under the guidance of Professor Lester Thurow. Past winners of the Lemelson-MIT Student Award are Akhil Madhani (PhD 1998), Nathan Kane (PhD 1998), David Levy (PhD 1997) and Thomas Massie (SB 1993, SM).

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 24, 1999.

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