by Elizabeth Leland ’76
Jeff Powell ’15 turned on the 3D printer in Carolina’s biomedical engineering lab and watched, mesmerized, as line by line, layer by layer, hour by hour, the parts of an artificial hand materialized from plastic filament. Four fingers. A thumb. A palm. In all, 17 pieces that would change the lives of others — and the course of his own.
Powell was coming off a rocky start to college. He arrived in Chapel Hill two years earlier from the rural eastern North Carolina community of Red Oak. His mother and father didn’t graduate from college. Although Powell finished first in his high school class, he didn’t understand what it took to succeed.
Distracted by living in “a big town” and focused on meeting new people and earning money at a part-time job, he struggled academically. It took the shock of a friend’s death for Powell to stop and reflect on the direction of his own life.
“I realized that I was at risk of messing up this opportunity that my parents never had, that so many people in my life had never had who helped me to get here, and this opportunity that my friend would never have. I needed to not take it for granted.”
With help from friends he “buckled down and learned how to learn” and by the end of sophomore year was making better grades. He found his place at Carolina in the department of biomedical engineering’s hands-on courses, rediscovering a knack for design and creating that emerged during childhood when he dabbled in electronics with his father. He began taking an active role in design projects and was elected design chair of the Biomedical Engineering Club.
Then came a chance encounter. It was 2014, the spring of his junior year. Carolina was developing the idea of a major commitment to the makerspace movement — weaving into the student experience the making of physical objects with digital and traditional tools. But it wouldn’t reach fruition until after Powell had graduated.
The father of a 6-year-old Chapel Hill boy named Holden Mora, who was born without fully developed fingers on one hand, asked Richard Goldberg, then a professor in the biomedical engineering department, whether a student might be interested in making a 3D-printed prosthetic for his son. Goldberg happened to run into Powell afterward and pitched the idea.
Powell seized the opportunity.
He searched the internet and discovered Enabling the Future (e-NABLE), a volunteer organization that shares open-source blueprints for 3D plastic hands and arms. He was among the first to take advantage of the free instructions. Powell measured the width of Holden’s palm to scale the hands to the boy’s size and downloaded three designs.
He worked over the summer, mostly by himself in the biomedical engineering lab, learning 3D printing by trial and error.
Powell didn’t call himself a “maker,” but that’s what he was. He found his community online. “The e-NABLE movement showed me that I as a student, not as an adult with a bunch of money, but I as a student can still find ways to use the skills I have to help other people out.”
One of the first lessons he learned is that failure is part of the process. It takes about 20 hours to print the pieces of a robotic hand. On his first attempt, what was supposed to be the smooth palm of a robotic hand came out bruised with bumps and ridges. Fingers had cracks in them and fell apart when he applied pressure.
Powell had to start over.
“While this was certainly frustrating, it forced me to investigate,” he said. “I was able to figure out why each part failed, research what others had to say about the problem online, tweak a setting, try again and see how that setting affected the print.”
He rejected two designs because they seemed too weak for the rough-and-tumble world of a young boy. He chose The Cyborg Beast, a robotic-looking hand with textured fingertips for gripping.
He stood beside the printer again as line by line, layer by layer, the new parts materialized. Eventually, he had 17 pieces that could work. But when he tried to assemble them into a hand, there were new challenges. He had to sand some parts to make them fit. He assembled everything using standard materials — Velcro, fishing line, elastic cords and foam padding — and still had to add screws to strengthen the design.
Lifelike prosthetic hands can cost thousands of dollars; the one Powell began work on for Holden was made for about $20 in materials.
He pushed through his mistakes and time-consuming printing failures. His version of the Cyborg Beast wasn’t as pretty as models pictured on the internet. Powell was nervous when he presented it to Holden and his parents.
Holden was thrilled. Powell strapped the Beast to Holden’s arm and instructed him to bend his left wrist. Holden’s new plastic fingers closed in. When he unbent his wrist, the grip released.
“It wasn’t this big, clunky metal hook that brought negative attention to him,” Powell told a TEDx conference audience at UNC in 2016. “It was his Cyborg hand.”
“He’s so excited,” Powell recalled recently. “He’s going around, giving people fist-bumps, trying to pick up things in the room, and just extremely excited. That showed me that this has been worth it. It’s a positive thing I’ve done here and something that I would like to continue, something that he enjoys, something that brings some hope to his parents, something that gives him some functional use. So I need to make this better.”
Powell turned to other Carolina students who had shown interest in collaborating with him. “There was a limit to what I could do by myself. By forming a group, we could get devices to more people, we could learn from each other, pull the power of the group in order to make sure we were making devices well and making them safe and reliable.”
They launched a nonprofit, The Helping Hand Project.
A friend of Powell’s in UNC’s School of Media and Journalism produced a video about Holden that was seen by someone at a television station. The station aired a story; CBS News picked it up, and thousands of dollars in donations poured in that would buy a better 3D printer.
The project served as a model for BeAM, the emerging UNC maker movement.
“We knew what Jeff was doing, and we understood that one of the challenges in his group was that they didn’t have the facilities and the support to build the prosthetic hands,” said Rich Superfine, chair of UNC’s department of applied physical sciences and part of BeAM’s founding team. “We needed to have 50 projects like Jeff’s being launched by students every day, and they needed support to launch their projects.”
As UNC’s maker movement took off, so did The Helping Hand Project.
One hand led to another, and requests kept coming. An estimated 1,500 babies are born in the United States every year with part or all of an arm missing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Other children lose limbs after birth due to accidents or injuries. Carolina students have made 40 hands, filling a special niche.
“We’re not trying to replace traditional prosthetic devices,” Powell said. “We’re trying to complement what traditional prosthetic devices offer and give another tool that parents can utilize to help their child. There’s a positive aspect to the simplicity of these devices. The more complicated they become, in theory the more they can do, but also the more difficult they are to put together, the more opportunities they have to fail. These 3D-printed prosthetic devices are kid-appropriate and inexpensive.”
Kait Kirkendoll was born with the same congenital abnormality as Holden — symbrachydactyly — in which fingers don’t form properly in utero. She said she was bullied in middle school because of it. After her aunt saw a story about Holden, Kait’s family reached out to Powell, and Kait got a hand, too. She’s now 18 and occasionally still uses a newer model when she wants to hold a cup or a bottle. For her, the most rewarding part of The Helping Hand Project has been meeting and sharing experiences with other children with limb differences.
“It definitely changed my life,” she said. “I wasn’t used to being around people like me. When you struggle, you know other kids are there. And Jeff is so supportive. If I ever have an issue, I know I can talk to him.”
It changed Powell’s life, too.
“Although I did not realize it at the time, 3D printing helped me to understand that failures are an important part of the learning process,” he said. “Failures should not be discouraging — the times I fail are the times I get to learn the most. I’ve developed a natural attitude of resiliency where I make a point to understand why I failed and improve upon that area for the future.”
Holden, now in fifth grade, no longer wears a prosthetic hand. But his mother, Bridget Mora, said he still treasures the hand. She described Powell and the students who joined him as “an inspiration.”
“It’s quite amazing to see how a little seed could grow into something much bigger,” Mora said. “It’s been pretty life-changing for some of those kids as far as dexterity and self-confidence concerned.”
Twice a year, Carolina students host gatherings for recipients and their families, giving boys and girls with limb differences a chance to get to know each other and their parents a chance to interact. In many ways, those gatherings have had as much of a lasting impact as the hands themselves. After the novelty wears off, some children like Holden revert to navigating the world the way they always did, without the colorful plastic hands, but reinforced in the knowledge that there are other kids out there just like them.
UNC students aren’t alone in this business. Thousands of people around the world — from the staff of a public library in Texas to sixth grade science students in Virginia — are creating plastic prosthetics.
But UNC’s program set a standard by doing more than making hands.
“Jeff has really been remarkable in organizing and developing this as a regional approach,” said Jon Schull, a former professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology who founded e-NABLE. “He’s also turned it into a great vehicle for inspiring and engaging students from a variety of disciplines as well as creating support groups for families in the area. It’s all above and beyond the usual practice.”
Three other North Carolina campuses now have chapters, lending their expertise in ways that complement the work of the Carolina students. At UNC-Charlotte, students are developing elbow-driven 0prosthetic arms for children who don’t have hands or wrists. At N.C. State University, they’re focusing on custom designs for children with unique anatomy. Students in the occupational therapy assistant program at Durham Technical Community College are working to improve comfort and usability.
“We didn’t ever expand for the sake of expanding,” Powell said. “The groups came to us. But serendipitously, they came to us at times when we had identified needs within our own program, things that we could do better. It lined up well with what their strengths could be.
“If we can help children get involved and be part of the design and implementation process, then you’re going to see these devices get better,” he said. “Because they understand in a way I never will.”
Powell has remained involved in the project as board president — a position he still holds. He took a job with TransEnterix, a medical robotics company in Research Triangle Park. But within months he was rethinking his future. He missed working directly with people in need and began re-considering medical school, a dream he shelved as an undergraduate in part due to his poor grades his first few semesters. He sought advice from mentors and former professors and eventually decided to go for it.
He was accepted to Wake Forest School of Medicine on his first try.
This year, Powell won a yearlong Schweitzer Fellowship to design a health-related community service program while in medical school. He said he plans to teach occupational therapy students at Winston-Salem State University about 3D printing so they can make tools such as pill bottle openers for a local free clinic. In turn, he hopes to learn therapy techniques for children in The Helping Hand Project.
Powell is not sure what medical specialty he’ll ultimately choose. And he’s not sure whether The Helping Hand Project will tie into that specialty. But there’s one thing he’s certain of: The project has had as big an impact on his life — if not more — as it has on the lives of the children who received artificial hands.
“It’s helped me understand how to relate to people, how to understand what life is like for someone who is different than I am and how to truly work for them and not get caught up in patting yourself on the back or overstating what you’re doing,” he said. “And that’s going to be very important as a doctor to understand. I need to stay humble.”
Elizabeth Leland ’76 is a freelance writer based in Charlotte.