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Making her way through MIT

Graduate student Lucy Du designs novel prosthetics and seeks to inspire others to pursue engineering.
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Caption: PhD student Lucy Du is a founding member and leader of the MIT MakerWorkshop, which has been much more than a workplace for Du, who also uses it as a hub for connections and inspiration.
Credits: Image: Gretchen Ertl

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Lucy Du
PhD student Lucy Du is a founding member and leader of the MIT MakerWorkshop, which has been much more than a workplace for Du, who also uses it as a hub for connections and inspiration.
Image: Gretchen Ertl

Lucy Du, a doctoral student in the MIT Media Lab, has a remarkable passion for making. She spends her work day in lab designing and fabricating prosthetics, and devotes her free time to personal projects in the MIT MakerWorkshop or inspiring other students to try their hands at engineering. “The best feeling is when I get to go into a shop and make some parts, or order some parts — and the day they come in is like Christmas,” she says.

Her affinity for making started at a young age. “I loved building things and having tangible hardware to work on. Sitting there and coding or doing math all day was never what I wanted,” Du says. She participated in a robotics team in high school and has drawn inspiration from Disney movies and entertainment for many years, especially as their humanoid animatronic technology has grown. (Disney’s “eerily organic-looking” Spiderman stunt robot is a particular favorite of hers.)

Now, as a fourth-year PhD student, Du is channeling her passion for building things into designing a prosthetic ankle that is readily accessible to people of all sizes, since current commercial designs are only suited for tall individuals.

She also shares her love of engineering in her pursuits outside of the lab. Throughout her time here (Du also earned her undergraduate and master’s degree at MIT), she has found ways to make building things and engineering more accessible to others — from creating a student makerspace to teaching high school girls. She even turned a role on Discovery’s reality TV show “BattleBots” into an opportunity to inspire kids about engineering.

Making for prosthetics

When Du finished her master’s in mechanical engineering in 2016, she was ready to experience something outside of academia. She went on to work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, but after two years, she started to feel an itch to get her PhD. Even though she considered other schools, MIT stood out as an obvious choice. “MIT has so many resources and so many opportunities that you can be here for years and years and not even scratch the surface,” she says. “I think it was where I was meant to be.”

Du knew she wanted to work on animatronic robotics. Finding the right lab was not without bumps, but she ultimately ended up in the Biomechatronics Group under professor of media arts and sciences Hugh Herr. Housed within the Media Lab, it is an interdisciplinary lab broadly focused on prosthetics, exoskeletons, and the human-robot interface. She knew Herr’s lab was the right fit for her because of its emphasis on hardware design. “It is actually really hard to find robotics labs that focus on hardware building,” she notes. “A lot of robotics labs will buy the hardware for a project and focus solely on the software. I believe in designing your hardware with the end application in mind, as this can make the whole process better.”

To that end, Du’s research project focuses on designing the hardware for a robotic ankle that functions better than what is available now. “I hope the design will be able to fully mimic biological movements, including fast walking, walking up and down stairs and ramps, and some other common motions that you would make throughout a day,” she explains.

Currently, there is only one commercial powered prosthetic ankle that provides enough force for walking. But it has notable limitations, Du says. Because the design is large and bulky, “you either need to be a person of tall stature or you have to have a very short residual limb after amputation in order to wear the product.”

In contrast, her prosthetic ankle has a smaller profile that would enable more people to use it. She notes, “The design itself is meant to be scaled, so you can have the same design and scale it down for children or other people who don’t need as much power, and then scale up to larger adults.”

Inspiring other makers

Du has devoted considerable time and energy over her years at MIT to helping others explore making and engineering. As a master’s student, she served as an instructor for the Women’s Technology Program in Mechanical Engineering, a summer program for high school girls that aims to inspire them to pursue engineering. During a month-long crash course, she served as one of three graduate instructors for the mechanical engineering curriculum, teaching 20 high school girls the basics of kinematics and dynamics, and working with them on cool, hands-on experiments.

Mentoring, she says, is “probably the most rewarding thing that I’ve done” — especially watching some of those students attend MIT and excel. She has continued to cultivate her love of teaching and mentoring as a teaching assistant during her PhD program.

Du is also a founding member and leader of the MIT MakerWorkshop, one of the few student-run makerspaces at MIT. As a master’s student, she noticed an unmet need for a makerspace where students could work on their personal projects, at hours that were convenient to them and did not conflict with class time. Even though there were already a lot of shops on campus, she says, “It was “pretty difficult to get access to a machine shop and for most of them, you were only supposed to work on class projects or research projects.”

The MakerWorkshop has served as much more than a workplace for Du; it has also been a hub for connections and inspiration throughout her graduate career. “A lot of times, I have an engineering problem or a life problem and I just want to talk to somebody. I could roam around the space, somebody would be there, and you could just talk to them about their experiences or have impromptu design reviews on the board.”

The connections that Du formed through MakerWorkshop led her in an unexpected direction: reality TV. She was one of a group of MakerWorkshop members who formed a team named SawBlaze for the Discovery show “BattleBots,” a revival of an old Comedy Central show from the early 2000s. In the show, teams build 250-pound robots to “fight to the death” in an arena. The SawBlaze team has competed in four seasons to date, starting in 2016 with season 2. “It is really different from the stuff we usually design and build [for research or class], because you are designing to material failure,” Du says. So far, the experience has taught her how to plan and design for the most extreme cases of impact, often relying on intuition, experience, and empirical testing, because these scenarios are usually beyond the limits of modeling. 

However, Du is less than interested in the screen time that the “BattleBots” role has brought her. Even though she is excited about the show’s upcoming season 6, she favors the outreach events, termed maker faires, where awe-struck kids excitedly point out their favorite robots and she has the opportunity to share how she got started in engineering.

This fall marks the 10th year of Du’s MIT career. As she begins to contemplate what she’ll do after she graduates, she’s keeping an open mind. She knows she wants to work on new technology development, whether that leads her to industry or academia. And she knows that teaching and mentoring will play an important role in her future. “The more time you put into teaching, the more rewarding it is,” she says. “To see your students get it and improve, that just means the world to me.”

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