NAU mechanical engineer receives NSF CAREER award to pioneer robot-assisted rehabilitation while integrating education, research

Zach Lerner, an assistant professor in Northern Arizona University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, was recently awarded a $538,563 grant from the National Science Foundation to build on his research into restoring neuromuscular function and augmenting human ability through the design, control and testing of robotic exoskeletons.

“There is a critical need for treatments that address the root causes of walking disability, including impaired strength, muscle control and coordination. This project seeks to advance the scientific study of walking rehabilitation and pioneer a novel wearable rehabilitation strategy,” Lerner said. “The outcomes of this project have the potential to transform the treatment of walking disabilities across a wide range of conditions.”

NSF’s most prestigious award in support of junior faculty

The award came through the NSF’s Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program, a foundation-wide activity that offers its most prestigious awards “in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. Activities pursued by early-career faculty should build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.”

The funding will support Lerner’s goal to optimize long-term gait rehabilitation through hybrid ankle exoskeleton training, working with a team that includes both graduate and undergraduate students in his Biomechatronics Lab on NAU’s Flagstaff campus.

While wearable robotic exoskeletons hold potential for individuals with walking disabilities, prior research has focused on immediate improvements in walking performance from powered assistance. This project seeks to understand whether alternating assistance and resistance with a wearable ankle exoskeleton will elicit greater improvements in walking than either approach alone.

“This funding will support us in establishing fundamental knowledge on the interplay between disease severity and wearable assistance and resistance,” Lerner said. “The strategies we develop will be generalizable, enabling other investigators to apply this framework to different types of control algorithms, devices, joints and patient populations.”

Project to integrate research and education

The five-year project will enable Lerner and his team to offer opportunities for educational and outreach activities to engage elementary and middle school students as well as college students. Lerner will develop a new Curriculum in Assistive Robotics and Engineering (CARE), incorporating advanced robotics course modules, design-for-disability capstone projects and K-12 experiences.

“Through this new curriculum, we aim to motivate engineering students to address the challenges experienced by individuals with disabilities and improve engineering education on human-centered design” Lerner said. “We anticipate that the students involved in CARE will gain an improved understanding of the needs of people with physical disabilities, which will translate into effective engineering solutions, and result in more motivated, insightful and impactful engineering students and professionals.”

Lerner, who holds a dual research appointment at the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix, also conducts research at the Phoenix Biomedical Center (PBC).

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Kerry Bennett | Office of the Vice President for Research

NAU Communications