Imagine a world where all amputees have access to affordable, life-changing prosthetics. That's the future that senior and SERC student Arav Bhargava is working towards; tackling complex problems with ingenuity and compassion. His low-cost, 3D-printed prosthetics aren't just devices; they are tickets to a world of possibility. This isn't a science project; it's a revolution in accessibility.
In SERC (Science and Engineering Research Center), students are required to pursue a unique topic of interest in science, math or engineering. Although topics may span from purely theoretical to laboratory research to the physical construction of a novel device, the underlying concept is expected to be original in nature and address a question that has not been previously answered.
Bhargava knew that he would spend more than two years on this and chose to do something he was passionate about. A member of Potomac’s swim team, Arav coaches swimming to children with disabilities for the Arlington Adapted Aquatics Program. He knew he wanted to help out people with disabilities. His robotics background didn’t hurt, saying, “The combination of engineering and disabilities within the field prosthetics appealed to me – so I began researching – and was amazed at how high tech everything was.”
When he was trying to figure out the exact details of his project, he went straight to the prosthesis professionals and asked what the most common problems were – accessibility came out on top.
Wanting to absorb as much as possible, Arav shadowed local organizations where they provide fittings for amputees. He learned so much more from those connections and started a podcast to gain more awareness in the process. In The Prosthetic Experience, listeners can hear stories from prosthetic users and amputees, surgeons using novel techniques for amputees, prosthetists, and even the prosthetic technicians who build these devices. What he learned about the changing field was how an inspiring, holistic view of prosthetics and bionics is helping overcome the immense obstacles that life brings.
For example, in the episode The Quest for Accessibility, Arav chats with former Olympic coach Bill Endicott, who began Operation Renew Prosthetics, which helps the thousands of Ukrainian soldier amputees. They spoke about Bill’s unique perspective on the field of prosthetics in the international realm and the ways he sees athletes pushing the boundaries of the human body.
Arav shares, “For many, understanding what it means to have to use a prosthetic rather than a natural limb is very hard to comprehend. We understand what a prosthetic is at a basic level, but we do not understand how its limits impact day to day activities and the impact it has on a person physically, mentally, and emotionally. The excitement today is how technology is changing so rapidly and how we are getting closer to bionics that grant amputees human-surpassing abilities.”
There's one statistic that solidified Arav’s decision to make this his project. According to the World Health Organization there are approximately 35-40 million people requiring orthotic and prosthetic services in developing countries and only 5% have access to those services. “I started thinking about the problems within. If you’re receiving a prosthetic, you're an amputee in need of professionals to fit you. The access isn’t there. Plus, these prosthetics are thousands of dollars. I wanted to design a universal fit and size adjustable prosthetic that was under $30, which is 1% of the cost of normal prosthetics.”
This addresses the pressing need, particularly with children, for an accessible and adjustable prosthetic that can drastically improve their lives. The research focused on children in developing countries who have lost limbs due to injury, illness, or birth defects in communities with little to no access to quality healthcare and limited medical technology. To date, only a fraction of them have access to a prosthetic, given its high cost, inflexibility, and requirement for a healthcare professional. In addition, as they grow, even if they had one to start, they would need to replace them frequently since the fit changes over time.
So he began to build, test, redesign, and repeat – gaining continuous advice and feedback. He worked with Potomac’s tech office to use their 3D printers on iterations of devices that he would run by professional prosthetic technicians, gathering feedback and redesigning options using his CAD software before printing again. He did this multiple times a week over a summer before finalizing three different sizes that he tested. The same device was able to fit three different amputee volunteers with “a higher comfort than their $120,000 prosthetics.” His devices also passed the necessary weight bearing tests.
His “Low-Cost, 3D-Printed, Universal-Fit, Transradial Socket for Amputees in Developing Countries” earned him a spot in the Top 40 finalists of the Regeneron Science Talent Search 2024. He is one of two students selected from Virginia. The finalists, who represent 36 schools across 19 states, are competing for more than $1.8 million, with a top prize of $250,000. Finalists were selected from 300 scholars and 2,162 entrants, the largest pool of applicants since the 1960s, based on the originality and creativity of their scientific research as well as their achievement and leadership both inside and outside of the classroom. As a result of being named a Top 40 Regeneron Scholar, Arav will be awarded at least $25,000. He will participate in the Regeneron Finals Week competition in Washington, D.C., this March.
Fellow senior and SERC student Max Zeldes was named to the Top 300 for his work “Improvement to Electroencephalography-Based Imagined Speech Brain-Computer Interfaces Using a Targeted, Dense Array of Electrodes With Scalp Current Density Calculations.” Previous Regeneron scholars include fifth place winner Carolyn Beaumont ’19, Ben Choi ’22 (Top 40), and Yanna Bravewolf ’22, Kat Plaza ’20, Evrim Ozcan ’20, and Jasmine Terrones '18 who were named Top 300.
On this journey, Arav sought out advice and feedback from Drs. Samuel Acuna, Quentin Sanders, and Siddartha Sikdar of George Mason University; Ben Kock and Will Garcia from Medical Center Orthotics and Prosthetics; and Dr. Isabelle Cohen, his mentor from Potomac.