A group of Baylor University engineering students is working to design a medical device for Allison Dickson, a Temple, Texas, resident with a rare and progressive form of muscular dystrophy.
Dickson, 40, who uses an electric wheelchair she nicknamed the “Jag,” said she plans to help those students in return. “I’m really trying to encourage the students to think about innovation,” she said.
Being diagnosed with Werdnig-Hoffmann disease at 15 months of age led Dickson into a life of innovation. “The doctors said I might live a year, and then I wasn’t supposed to make it to 3,” she recalled.
Another life-changing illness in 2014 put her on life support three times. “I almost died but, again, I didn’t.”
And through it all, Dickson excelled. She graduated first in her class from Baylor Law School in 2007, led an effort to endow a law school scholarship in 2016 and was named Baylor Young Lawyer of the Year in 2017. She’s also known for a powerful social media presence and for civic and philanthropic activities.
Even the COVID-19 outbreak has not gotten her down. “I had a jump start on the virus,” she said. “Disruption causes innovation.”
Now she’s eager to see what the team of Baylor engineering students invents on her behalf. “Their goal is to create something that might improve the quality of my life,” she explained.
In part, the student project is a result of the pandemic, said Jonathan Rylander, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Baylor.
Typically, students in his Medical Device Design and Evaluation course collaborate with doctors to design medical equipment. But with lower enrollment due to COVID-19, Ryland said he wanted to add something different: “I thought it would be good to focus on an actual person instead of a generic need from a doctor.”
Ryland said Dickson came to mind because she is a friend of his brother and sister-in-law. “But I really got to know her better when she joined my fantasy football league,” he said.
Dickson and the five students assigned to the project meet weekly via Zoom to develop a comprehensive awareness of her health challenges and other difficulties, including challenges with mobility. “My main purpose is for students to apply technical knowledge to Allison’s real-life issues,” he said.
Students have expressed the same desire. Each chose to collaborate with Dickson, the professor said. “For all of them it was the human connection.”
Sam Hockett, 23, said this project provides meaning to the design principles he’s learning as a Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering.
“Working with Allison brings much more emotional motivation and spiritual motivation because you are actually interacting with a person,” he said. “Our goal is to help Allison and other people like Allison.”
Hockett explained that his interest in biomedical engineering is influenced in part by his Christian faith, which inspires him to use his profession to help others.
“Working with Allison is right up in my wheelhouse,” he said. “I enjoy taking what I learned in school, those design principles, and creating something that is useful to her and other people.”
This is why the team is dedicated to learning everything it can about Dickson’s situation, he added. And that included learning what she likes to do for fun. “I said I’m very social. I like going to events,” she said.
They also asked where she would go if she could go anywhere. “I said to a Baylor football game. I haven’t been to the new stadium yet.”
Dickson said she’s already benefitted from the process because “it’s a way for me to stay connected with the Baylor community.”
The eventual outcome of the collaboration is uncertain. The team is focused on design. Building a device would come later, perhaps through the efforts of another class.
Dickson said the experience confirms for her that perseverance leads to blessings like the design process she is now part of. It’s all about being open to possibilities.
“I don’t need easy; I just need possible. That’s one of my mottos,” she said. “If you have one shred of possibility, there is no telling what you can do.”