FIve UI alum on recent Forbes "30 under 30"

By Daniel Corry

This year Forbes magazine’s annual “30 under 30” featured five “game changers, movers and makers” with University backgrounds.

The annual issue highlights the 30 brightest people under the age of 30 in 20 different fields. This year, Phil Ansell, Qian Chen, Nisha Chittal, Scott Daigle and Patrick Slade were all recognized and all have ties to the University.

Patrick Slade, 21

Patrick Slade, senior in mechanical engineering, can be found in the healthcare section in the article, for his outstanding achievements in the prosthetic industry. Slade developed artificial hands that are a fraction of the cost of those currently available.

The summer after he graduated high school, Slade got a 3-D printer and started to experiment.

“(I) was doing all sorts of engineering projects, like 3-D-printed rollerblades, robots that could fly or draw pictures, as well as assistive devices, such as one that could aid visually impaired people, and my first prototype of a prosthetic hand,” he said.

Slade came into contact with a PhD student Aadeel Akhtar and Engineering professor Tim Bretl, and began researching sensory feedback, which indicates force and position of the prosthetic to the user. This project peaked Slade’s interest in designing better prosthetic hands at a lower cost. Typical prosthetic hands cost anywhere from $30,000 to $40,000.

”Basically I started working on a very low-cost method to make these hands using 3-D printing and common parts you’d find at a hardware store so people could make their own hands for one percent of the cost,” he said. “The idea was to enable people in both developed and developing nations where people couldn’t afford devices and didn’t have access to prosthetists.”

Slade said his most memorable moment was being able to travel around the world and see his creation have an impact on other people’s lives. But Slade said his work doesn’t stop here.

“I think in the next few decades we can vastly improve so many things about prosthetics and assistive technology such as exosuits to allow people with disabilities to regain functionality at the level of unimpaired people, further improve human capabilities past their natural level, and make them more accessible by lowering the cost and allowing more people access to the technology,” Slade said. “By the time I’m 60, I hope people can get advanced devices such as myoelectric hands regardless of their income or geographic location in the world so they can pursue their passions and live life independently.”

Qian Chen, 29

Qian Chen, who earned her PhD in materials science from the University in 2012, focuses on the development of “soft matter” or materials that have their own intelligence.

“(Material science) combines the advances of many other disciplines (physics, chemistry, biology) to design and make materials to address different needs in energy, healthcare and other technological areas,” she said.

Chen got started in material science, “making nano-sized balls composed of metals in a soup of polymers and surfactants in my undergrad research laboratory.”

The main idea of Chen’s developments is to make self-evolving and self-replicating materials that can reconfigure their structure and functions according to the external environment.

“The inspiration is from biology,” she said. “Living systems can achieve these dream properties with their unique features: they can move on their own by consuming external energy (such as food and nutrition); they can communication between each other by chemical or electronic signaling pathways; they can grow and propagate by replicating genes through molecular machineries. Our goal is to engineer such behaviors in artificial materials from their composing units.”

Seeing five Illinois alumni make the 30 under 30 list did not come as a surprise to Chen.

“Illinois is the place where my science started and where I chose to build my own independent career,” she said. “It is a great place to cultivate young and the most innovative people and technology.”

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