Out of the GAIT

A new undergraduate fellowship focuses on impact by building digital health technology

June 2, 2018 by Daniel McGlynn
This article appeared in Berkeley Engineer magazine, Spring 2018

Tanisha Randhawa is a fourth-year mechanical engineering student, and right now she has a storyboard outlining a mobile phone app laid out in front of her. Two members of the university community, both in their seventies, sit across the table from her at the downtown Berkeley offices of the university’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, OLLI‍@‍Berkeley.

Randhawa is the technical lead on a project called GAIT, a collaboration between OLLI and the Fung Fellowship. She’s collecting feedback about a planned hardware and mobile phone app prototype that will track metrics like stride velocity and stride length — key data points for assessing gait, which is a major indicator of mobility.

Tanisha Randhawa wioth insole prototypeMechanical engineering student Tanisha Randhawa holding a prototype of an insole that can measure key gait indicators. (Photo by Golnaz Shahmirzadi)She’s hoping to get some guidance, asking questions like, “If we are talking about speed, would you prefer miles per hour, or steps per hour?”

This small focus group is one of a handful that Randhawa and her GAIT teammates will be holding over the course of the semester to glean valuable insight about what would make the app useful to the target demographic — aging adults. The OLLI focus group participants steer Randhawa away from calling anything “lifetime data.” They are also opposed to any kind of alert that might be construed as medical advice. “At my age, I don’t need anything telling me what to do,” says one of the interviewees. They are not much for bells and whistles, alerts or badges; instead, they just want the information displayed in a clear way.

Randhawa is taking notes, modifying the storyboards, which she will use to report back to her team: Anna Bloom (molecular and cell biology major), Lydia Chen (nutrition) and Michelle Sou (public health), who are also conducting interviews and helping to create GAIT’s technology.

“I liked the idea that we would be working in groups,” says Randhawa, “and with classmates who are not engineers. I’m with engineers all day, and I feel like engineers have a certain way of thinking. We love technology and innovation, but you get a different perspective when we are working with people from different majors.”

The Fung Fellowship’s cross-disciplinary nature is well suited to that broader view, Randhawa says. “I thought this was perfect because in mechanical engineering you can take some classes that are in biotechnology implant design or prosthetic design, but not necessarily public health, where you can think about the bigger picture.”

As the semester unfolds, other Fung Fellow teams are also working along the fringes of health and wellness and digital technology. Some fellows are using virtual reality in the classroom to get kids more physical activity during the school day. One group is trying to figure out how to use blockchain to protect, manage and maybe monetize personal health data, while another is using augmented reality to relieve anxiety in pediatric cancer patients. There are projects, like GAIT, that are undertaken with outside organizations or companies, while others are self-directed groups looking to answer questions or further explore concepts that have come up during the two-year fellowship.

The Fung Fellowship for Wellness and Technology Innovations, which began in late 2016 with its first group of 45 undergraduates, is supported by Coleman Fung (B.S.’87 IEOR), the entrepreneur and founder of Blue Goji, a wellness technology company focused on the gamification of fitness (using immersive gaming and virtual reality technology). The program is run collaboratively between the College of Engineering and the School of Public Health. Operationally, the fellowship is headquartered at the Fung Institute for Engineering Leadership.

Jaspal Sandhu (Ph.D.’08 ME) is the program’s faculty director. He uses his vantage at the intersection of engineering, public health and human-centered design — he is a founder and managing partner at an Oakland-based design agency called Gobee, and he has been teaching a design course at the School of Public Health since 2011 — to develop curriculum and lead instruction for the fellowship.

Earlier, during an info session for prospective fellows, he said: “This is a team-based experience. We have no shortage of smart people, but we are not just looking for smart people. We are looking for people with a purpose. We want people who are at their core trying to change the world and their professions. Everything else can be taught.”

Last spring, before Randhawa and her team started working on GAIT, a handful of companies and organizations pitched ideas to the Fung Fellows. Their goal was to get students to sign on for a year to develop a technology solution to a health problem that they identified.

OLLI Director Susan Hoffman conceived the project based on insight gleaned from research presented at a global conference on aging. She was also inspired after noticing gait changes in a family member. “Falls in older adults are a public health issue, and gait dysfunction is a contributing factor” explains OLLI research associate Cheryl Brewster. “Research also shows that problems with gait are a bellwether for cognitive issues.”

With Brewster’s mentorship and the support of the Fung Fellowship’s staff, Randhawa and her teammates developed a system to monitor gait. After receiving feedback from interviews, the team created five prototype devices that could be embedded with sensors. “The sensors record different aspects of data like stride length, stride velocity and stance width,” says Randhawa. It’s going to be coupled with a mobile application that will show you your stats. 

In the future, the GAIT team hopes to have a prototype of their device and app built and tested by OLLI participants. While anyone with an aging loved one can understand the market demand for a product like the one Randhawa and her team are building, they are not out to commercialize their work or spin out a company. Instead, they are building something that tracks gait in aging people because they want to learn more about the interplay between technology and health. Or, as Randhawa said, it’s always been about the bigger picture.