“I believe my purpose is to help,” says Uğur Tanriverdi. He’s a PhD candidate at Imperial working on a device to help amputees live comfortably and confidently. Suddenly my list of emails to write and errands to run for the day seem drastically less important. So how does he approach his work?
“Amputees are not patients. They are people. So while legally, I am developing medical devices, what I am really creating is lifestyle devices.” And that’s impossible, he explains, without quality societal engagement.
Based in the Department of Bioengineering, Uğur received the President’s Student Award for his efforts to engage and involve the public with his work on prosthetics. He has invented new robotic limb technology to improve the quality of life for millions of amputees and co-founded a start-up, Unhindr, to help amputees beyond his research. And this is where engagement is key.
“At every stage of this design process, we need feedback to fully understand the user journey. To design something that really works in harmony with a person’s life, I need input from a broad spectrum of people – from amputees themselves of course, but also from other engineers, doctors and clinicians, charities, even lawyers.”
The project has just received ethical approval to begin pre-clinical trials at Imperial Laboratories. So does that mean it’s full steam ahead? And how has COVID-19 impacted his work?
“A typical day for me pre-Covid might have seen me go from the hospital to the laboratory, to a meeting with patent attorneys, to an awards ceremony!” says Uğur (the Unhindr team has received numerous awards, most recently the Mayor's Entrepreneur Health award, while Uğur has received three translational research grants and recognition awards for his disability research). “Obviously a lot of my work is online now, but there’s no way to replicate an experiment at home – I have to be onsite to see our designs fail or succeed at an early stage in the process.”
Uğur attributes his success to being in the right place at the right time, the stars aligning to see him move from Istanbul to graduate in 2017 with a second Masters degree from Imperial, and begin his PhD. But it’s impossible to chalk his accomplishments up to chance. Throughout our conversation, his desire to help others emerges, which sounds like a broad aim, but is something he only discovered after a great deal of soul searching. “This combination of entrepreneurial work with research, you can only do it if you really want to.” He explains. “I don’t see it as a job, but as a purpose.”
Before our meeting, I opened up the Unhindr website to take a look at Uğur’s work. “That’s so cool!” exclaimed my seven year old, peering over my shoulder at the image of an expertly-fitted prosthetic leg. She’s absolutely right.
Image credits: Jason Alden