QUEST Student Innovates Mobility in Uganda

QUEST students go on to create incredible impact in their professional and personal lives. Some of them start early and are able to work on projects that are deeply meaningful while still at UMD. Natalie Wolfe, a Mechanical Engineering student and junior in Cohort 33, is one of them. Natalie is the Innovation Team Lead for the Engineering World Health (EWH) Chapter at UMD. The EWH Chapter at UMD is a part of a global community seeking to inspire and mobilize biomedical engineering to improve the quality of health care in vulnerable communities.

EWH has been working in collaboration with Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda to create a brake for wheelchairs for the last few years. This project was started a few years ago, with the goal of assisting the mobility of persons with disabilities (PWDs) in Uganda. Natalie tells me, “EWH@UMD noticed that many wheelchair users were using sandals to brake their wheelchairs and thus we decided to design a wheelchair brake. We have spent the past few years working on the brake and have gotten to the point where it is prototyped and getting ready for the testing stages.” 

Natalie (fourth from left) and her EWH team

When Natalie took over as the Innovation Team Lead, she orchestrated a meeting between the EWH chapter at Makerere University and UMD’s chapter — the meeting was the first in a few years. They realized that they would need to change the scope of their project, as there was a bigger need for inexpensive wheelchairs in Uganda than there was for wheelchairs with brakes. However, the team also considered that Ugandans need more wheelchairs that are suited to the terrain of the area. Because of these recent developments, Natalie’s team has had two ideas. One, they could create this new inexpensive wheelchair and would likely do so by partnering with professionals on and off campus, as well as organizations in Uganda. The other option they are leaning towards is creating a pipeline of donated wheelchairs into Uganda. The final decision is still very much up in the air, and they are currently trying to work out the details since the scope of the project has changed so drastically. 

Natalie always knew back in high school that she wanted to work on this project with EWH. So naturally, she joined UMD’s chapter of EWH during her freshman year. Natalie had always wanted to get involved in the medical field, but not as a doctor, nurse, or researcher. Instead, she wanted to be able to use her mechanical engineering background, and EWH seemed like the perfect way to do that. It gave her opportunities in the medical device/public health community, but has also strengthened her design and prototyping skills.

Being a part of QUEST has definitely better equipped Natalie to handle this project. When asked about how QUEST has helped her, she said, “When I began, I was mostly focused on the creation of the brake itself. I concerned myself with the mechanical design, the materials it would be created with, and so on. I gave thought to the user requirements, but didn’t really probe them as deeply as I should have. After my experience with QUEST, I have a much more streamlined approach to the project and now have an approach that works to keep the users in mind. One of the biggest things in QUEST is to get to know your client and what they really need and want. Since we had not had a meeting with our clients in Uganda for so long, I used my knowledge from 390H to set up a meeting with them. Now that our project may be switching to process engineering, I think that my QUEST knowledge will be more helpful than ever.”

A prototype of the initial brake design

There have been ups and downs along the way. The recent scope change was obviously a challenge, as the team had to reposition itself to shift its focus from brakes to an entire wheelchair. The pandemic has also complicated the situation, affecting the prototyping and testing process. The team needs actual wheelchairs, machine shops materials, and 3D printers to successfully complete this project, none of which their members and board have at home. Natalie and a few other members are still on campus, but COVID restrictions have made it extremely hard to work cohesively as a team. 

Through these challenges, Natalie still remains very excited about the project. She is very passionate about making an impact. Talking to the board of EWH at Makerere University made her realize how much of a need there is for a project like this. She hopes to continue with this project over the next year and a half before she graduates and hopefully will see some direct impacts in that time frame. 

Finally, when I asked Natalie if there was anything else she wanted to share with the QUEST community, she said, “Our club is also partnering with Project C.U.R.E., a non-profit organization that provides repaired medical devices to areas that do not have access to quality healthcare. We are hoping to work with them to repair medical devices and take part in distributing them to these areas. We also are always open to new people getting involved! We are an organization within the A. James Clark School of Engineering, but always are looking for more engineers or dedicated students to help us with designing/prototyping, process engineering, or creating a business plan. If you’re interested, contact Natalie Wolfe at”  

It remains to be seen where this project will end up, but it certainly seems like it will add great value to its eventual users. I’m sure I speak for the entire QUEST community when I wish Natalie the best of luck!

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