Interview with Jade Myers: Designing 3D Printed Prosthetics

Jade Myers holds positions as a Research Development Specialist within the RIT AMPrint Center and as Adjunct Faculty within both the Biomedical Engineering Department and the School of Individualized Studies. She has served as a Research and Development Associate and Haiti Project Team Lead for LimbForge, a non-profit organization specializing in increasing access to quality upper limb prostheses for underserved communities throughout the world, and has collaborated with Doctors without Borders (MSF) on multiple international low-cost medical device projects involving 3D printing. She has instructed and co-instructed several courses including Medical Device Design and 3D-Technologies for Prosthetic Applications—an interdisciplinary project-based class that leverages 3D-printing, scanning, and CAD to engage students in the many facets of prosthesis design. Jade recently earned a Ph.D. in Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, and her current research centers on finding novel ways to improve the design and safety of printed upper limb prostheses using density-graded lattice structures. She was the recipient of the 2023 Orthotic and Prosthetic Education and Research Foundation (OPERF) fellowship, and her work placed third in the international nTop/EOS Responsible Parts Challenge competition among submissions from 28 colleges and universities across 16 countries. Jade was honored with the Bruce R. James ‘64 Distinguished Public Service Award for 2023. Jade will be joining us at our upcoming event focusing on 3D Printed Prosthetics.

When was the first encounter you had with 3D printing? What was that experience like? What were you thinking at that moment?

Jade: When I was in my last year as an undergraduate student, I was very interested in studying the brain and intelligence. I was setting up an experiment that involved slime mold, these remarkable protist organisms that—while they have no brains— exhibit interesting abilities to solve complex mazes and “shortest path” problems. At the time, there was local interest in creating a bike path from our university to a neighboring university, so my project was to find an optimal route for this bike path by pitting slime mold against MapQuest (dating myself) to determine the best route for the path between schools. I wanted to create a scaled-down 3-dimensional topographically accurate model of the geography and features of the area for the slime mold to travel through, and I had heard about a professor who had recently acquired a few desktop 3D printers at his lab. These were in those early years after the Scott Crump/Stratasys patent for fused filament style 3D printing expired and there was this sort of explosion of FFF 3D printing happening. My mind began to spin a million miles an hour thinking about all the possibilities. I began looking up everything I could find on 3D printing, and I reached out to the professor and met with him at the lab that very day. From that day forward, I was hooked. A few students in his lab were beginning work on a project to create designs for low-cost 3D printable hand devices—at the time, I would say I was beyond naïve to the complexity of the needs for such devices from clinical and sociocultural perspectives, but it was a starting point… a spark that has in the years since turned into a blaze.

What inspired you to start your journey?

Jade: Back in the early days, we were contacted by the mother of a nine-year-old local boy who had a congenital amputation at the transcarpal level, meaning he was born with a hand amputation just beyond his wrist. He had sadly been a target for bullying at school, and his mother had hoped our team might help him with an affordable option for a prosthesis. Certainly, today, I’d never suggest students without proper clinical training should be fitting prosthetic devices— perhaps especially to children— but back when accessible desktop 3D printing was newer to the scene, this seemed like it had the potential to be an amazing way to help another person by pointing skills in design and engineering toward a meaningful project. We took the project on, and there was a lot of media attention, which carries its own set of complexity. After a photo shoot and interview, I found it simply didn’t sit with me well. This boy was already self-conscious of his amputation, and now it was being put on display. Additionally, what was not highlighted in the media was the follow-up. While the boy had gone to school with the device and other kids thought it was cool, the pinky finger broke on it within a week and it needed to be reprinted. The combination of a lack of in-depth understanding of how various print parameters affect part strength and ways design and build orientation can affect anisotropic behavior and simply how people would be using the prostheses in general—well, it was a bit of a catastrophe, but I think a necessary catastrophe to get where we are now. Worse was the lack of an understanding of appropriate expectations-setting and the disappointment that a child (who had really high hopes for a prosthetic device) had to feel when the thing that had helped his classmates to accept him suddenly failed. Would people in the future… would he ever trust a prosthesis made by a 3D printer again? Or even try a prosthesis, traditionally manufactured, at all? There was much at stake here, and this was one experience, among a few, that inspired me to do things better—differently— to genuinely help people.

Who inspired you the most along this journey in 3D printing?

Jade: This one’s easy. Anyone who knows me knows who Danie is and what she means to me. Several years ago, when I started focusing my research to benefit clinicians and their patients in low-resource areas (where the highest need for prosthetics exists), one of the first patients our team worked with was a young woman named Danie. During my first interview with her, she described a day as a teenager when she had been bathing and felt a rumble. Her baby niece screamed and Danie ran to get her out of the house. Just as she was able to get her niece out the doorway, the concrete house toppled and fell on Danie, crushing much of her arm and pinning her in the rubble. Her mother, still in the house, did not survive. The day turned to night and Danie had been calling out in pain, but there was no one to offer her help. There was still a portion of an overhead patio looming over her, threatening to fall on her, as aftershocks of the devastating earthquake of 2010 shook them. She knew she had to get out of there to survive. She continued to call out, but this time she called out for someone to bring her a knife. Eventually, in the middle of the night, someone did. As a teenager, Danie had to amputate her own arm just below the shoulder to survive. It would be days before she would make her way to a hospital to receive formal treatment. It is a true wonder that she survived at all. So much could have happened with infection, with bleeding… just a wonder. After she left the hospital, she lived on the rubble of the house she grew up in, where her mother was buried, for a time. She then heard there were some aid groups setting up shelters near the airport and she moved into this “tent city.” She was still living there almost seven years later when I met her, tattered USAID tarps still being used as roofs on many of the homes there. Various gangs had taken over the area and women were all too commonly being raped simply on the way to the latrine. Danie bore a child there. It was no place for someone, especially with an amputation. People called her names, and wouldn’t help her. There was a high stigma associated with disability in general. Despite all of this, Danie was always smiling, laughing, and joking around. You would never know what she had endured, and what she was still enduring. If my research could help just one person, I wanted it to be her. A lot has happened since the day I met Danie. She has had several iterations of prostheses now and has helped co-design them with me and with input (and fitting) from her clinicians. She had moved into a somewhat safer place for a time, and until the most recent severe political upheaval in Haiti, had been working with the use of her prosthesis selling goods in the public market. Her confidence and sense of dignity and independence had been steadily growing, especially after she was able to put the first two of her now three children in school with her own hard work—something she never imagined she’d be able to provide them in this lifetime. I am so honored and humbled that she named her son, Jaden, after me. Working with Danie has provided me with a greater purpose in life, and I can imagine doing nothing else.

What motivates you the most for your work? 

Jade: While Danie has been my biggest inspiration, I think seeing the ripple effect of what having economic access to a prosthesis can mean for a person’s family and community gives me additional motivation. And it’s certainly not just the device, itself, that allowed Danie to accomplish putting her children in school and thus really changing what the trajectory of their lives (and the opportunities they will have) will be. Danie is responsible for most of that on her own. However, having access to a prosthetic device helped her to do activities for work and to more effectively blend into a society where a high sociocultural stigma exists for people with amputations. Having that access made a difference. It was at least one small part of her getting to a better place in life. Having the benefit of seeing the positive difference it has made over the last few years has been a motivator to keep designing better and better devices, to help more and more people in this way.

Photo Credit: Jade Myers

What is/are the biggest obstacle(s) in your line of work? If you have conquered them, what were your solutions? 

Jade: In the early days, 3D printed prosthetics were most widely publicized as maker devices, typically created by people without clinical training who could somehow in a few hours of printing change a person’s life—someone they perhaps had never met who maybe even lived in another country. While there is no doubt the people involved in such projects were well-intentioned, and that some positive effects have come from these efforts, I strongly believe that clinical and sociocultural expertise is absolutely needed for prostheses to function well, not injure someone, and to be appropriate for the person they are made for in the context in which they live. It is also critical that the 3D printing processes be well-understood by either those doing the printing or those creating highly detailed guidelines for printing since the strength of parts can vary so dramatically given print parameters and the materials and processes used. Initially, getting people to understand that there were groups doing solid collaborative research—that clinicians, engineers, prosthetic users, ethnographers, designers, etc., were co-creating prosthetics manufactured using additive means—I think that was a really big hurdle to overcome in the early days. Having there be more exposure to medical 3D printing in the media (through efforts like 3DHeals, for instance) has really helped this research and has helped additive manufacturing be seen as a viable means for the production of certain medical devices—a prosthesis being one of them.

Today, since my research is in Haiti, the biggest obstacles have most recently been related to travel restrictions and the current extreme political upheaval and gang activity that makes moving about in Port-Au-Prince extremely dangerous. We have shifted to more design research and testing at RIT, the university where I work, as a result. It will make us better prepared when it becomes more reasonable to travel again, so it is certainly time well spent.

What do you think is (are) the biggest challenge(s) in 3D Printing/bio-printing? What do you think the potential solution(s) is (are)?

Jade: There are so many open challenges in this space, so I’ll speak to the familiar—lattices and generative design. There are a number of CAD tools available now that offer amazing capabilities for designing with complex and smart geometries. The challenge now is often creating the most appropriate and effective means to create them additively. Each type of printing carries with it its own set of “best approaches” for setting up designs, types and properties of printed materials that can be printed, and overall pros and cons of use. The same geometry printed on different types of printers will have vastly different results. Some designs may not even be printable on particular machines. Our team agrees that much research needs yet to be done to decide what kinds of geometries, or design alterations to geometries, are best to print on what type of printer and with what type of settings. I think there will be no shortage of jobs for researchers in this area over the next few years. 

If you were granted three wishes by a higher being, what would they be? 

Jade: I believe in equal importance of all beings, and a “higher” being is perhaps a bit outside the reality I typically move about in. But if I play along and imagine there is some wish-granting genie, and this opportunity was presented… well, I wouldn’t want any wishes. All is as I’d want it to be. I feel like a wish is a bit of a cop-out. It skips to the end and gives you an end goal at its fruition without allowing you the understand the process and the beautiful complexity of how you got there. To me, that process is the part I cherish the most, and that is how things already seem to work.

It’s not that I don’t have goals—things I strive for. Of course, I want Danie and her family to live in a safe community, where the current gang violence will not reach them, and I want people in the gangs to have healthier options for survival. I want people to have access to prosthetic devices if they desire to have that, and I am working toward helping to make that a reality on a daily (and usually also nightly) basis. And once that becomes a reality, the playing field will have changed and there will be new goals to be had. I guess, philosophically, I think we will have missed a lot of wisdom and beauty if we get the goals without doing what it takes to get there.

What advice would you give to a smart driven college student in the “real world”? What bad advice you heard should they ignore? 

Jade: Spend three times as much effort in understanding the needs for a design than you do in creating the design solution itself. 

Lead with what you are passionate about in life.

Related Links:

3D Printed Orthotics and Prosthetics (On-Demand, 2023)

3D Printing for O&P, Assistive Devices (On-Demand)

3D Printed Orthotics and Prosthetics (On-Demand)

How AI and 3D Printing Enhance Crafting Custom Orthotics and Prosthetics

3D Scanning for Prostheses

Interview with Jacob Santovsky: GoEngineer and LN4 Hand Project