Dr. Brenna Argall (center) inducted to AIMBE College of Fellows


Dr. Brenna Argall Inducted to Prestigious AIMBE College of Fellows


At a March 27 ceremony in Washington, D.C., Brenna Argall, PhD, research scientist and director, argallab, Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, was inducted into the American Institute for Medical and Biomedical Engineering’s (AIMBE) College of Fellows. The AIMBE College of Fellows is a unique honor, recognizing the top 2 percent of medical and biological engineers in the country.


Dr. Argall — the 11th Shirley Ryan AbilityLab-affiliated researcher to become an AIMBE fellow — was honored for her groundbreaking research on incorporating robotic intelligence and autonomy into existing assistive machines like powered wheelchairs and robotic arms. Her goal is to make assistive devices more accessible to people with severe impairments for whom standard models are burdensome, or even impossible to use.

“With assistive devices like powered wheelchairs, you can have a tradeoff between the benefits of more independence versus the costs of the time and energy it takes to complete tasks. For instance, if you use a head array or sip-and-puff mechanism to control a wheelchair, those can be very taxing interfaces to use. If you were then to use those interfaces to operate more complex devices, such as robotic arms, it can take more time and effort to get a task done than it would if a caregiver just does the task for you,” she said. “That’s where robotics autonomy can help.”

“The Control Loop” & “Interface Awareness”


Dr. Argall explained that there are two lines of inquiry that she currently is following on use of robotic intelligence and autonomy to help people with impairments. The first looks at the use of assistive technologies (think of the lane assist, emergency braking and automatic parallel parking currently found in automobiles) to make powered wheelchairs into a viable option for those who currently are unable to use them. The trick, she said, is finding exactly how much of the control of a device should remain with the human — and how much can be taken over by robotic intelligence.

“For instance, we know that most people don't want a 100%-driverless car solution for their wheelchairs. They want to stay in the control loop as much as they are able,” she said. “Deciding when and how is the right time to step in is really critical. If robotic intelligence steps in at the wrong time, you're actually taking away agency from the person and you're doing the opposite of what you set out to do.”


Another, newer question in the argallab concerns a concept called “interface awareness.” This use of robotic autonomy aims to more intelligently and effectively interpret what users want their devices to do in order to give them the outcome they desire.

“To operate an interface, you need to do something physical, which creates a signal that is interpreted by the device. Think of pushing on a joystick to tell a powered wheelchair to move forward or to the left. But, for some people with impairments — depending on their individual needs — it can be very difficult to do that. They may create unwanted signals that tell the device to do things they don’t actually want to happen,” said Dr. Argall. “In the autonomy system, we can actually mine information about users’ preferences and patterns of use, and try and make the device respond in a way that more accurately reflects what the user wants to happen.”

How the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab Model Benefits Dr. Argall’s Research


“Having our lab in a hospital is huge. I know of one other autonomous robotics researcher in the world who has a lab in the hospital, so this has offered me a unique perspective and keeps my lab's research clinically focused,” said Dr. Argall. “In robotics research, people are always making claims about how their discoveries ‘could be deployed in assistive technologies.’ For so many of these claims, it's not that they’re made in bad faith, but they just are not grounded in the clinical practicalities of the problem. I find that I make very different decisions, in terms of what I’m focusing on for research, than I would if the patient were not so clearly the priority. I firmly believe that that's the right thing to be doing.”


In fact, said Dr. Argall, she recently started a collaboration with a company called LUCI, the first (and only) provider of a sensor-based safety system for wheelchairs. This relationship was made possible thanks to Shirley Ryan AbilityLab’s translational model.

“We were introduced to the LUCI team through Jessica Presperin Pedersen, a research occupational therapist in Shirley Ryan AbilityLab’s Wheelchair Seating Center, who was attending a conference. What the LUCI team knew and liked about my lab’s research was that we always keep the human in the wheelchair,” said Dr. Argall. “Many robotics groups use wheelchairs as just another robotic platform, but we always run studies with actual humans who have impairments in our chairs. For us, it's all about how human and autonomy interact so the actual end user has to be there.”

An Expanding Cohort of Excellence


With this honor, Dr. Argall joins a select group that includes recipients of the Nobel Prize and the Presidential Medals of Science, Technology and Innovation; and hundreds of members of the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Medicine, and the National Academy of Sciences.

Other Shirley Ryan AbilityLab and affiliated researchers in the AIMBE College of Fellows are:

  • Levi Hargrove, PhD, scientific chair, Regenstein Foundation Center for Bionic Medicine 
  • Todd Kuiken, MD, PhD, director emeritus (retired), The Regenstein Foundation Center for Bionic Medicine
  • Richard Lieber, PhD, senior vice president and chief scientific officer
  • Lee Miller, PhD, research scientist
  • Wendy Murray, PhD, research scientist
  • Sandro Mussa-Ivaldi, PhD, senior research scientist
  • James Patton, PhD, senior research scientist
  • Eric Perreault, PhD, research scientist
  • José Pons, PhD, scientific chair, Margaret & Mark Stephan Legs + Walking Lab
  • Matthew Tresch, PhD, professor, Northwestern University's Department of Biomedical Engineering

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