George Mason University
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George Mason University

Bioengineering senior wants to create assistive technology to help others

September 17, 2020   /   by Nanci Hellmich

“What I like about bioengineering is the understanding of the body through an engineering lens. It expands your perspective on solutions to physiological problems."

— Allison Dockum, a senior in bioengineering

Allison Dockum majored in bioengineering to help others.

Allison Dockum majored in bioengineering so she can create medical devices that help others. "I would like to work either in industry or research and focus on assistive technology—prosthetics and biomechanical devices," she says.

Senior Allison Dockum is majoring in bioengineering to change lives for the better. She has first-hand experience in the impact of this expertise.

Surgeons and bioengineers “gave me the ability to live a semi-normal life, and I want to do the same for others,” she says.

Dockum was born with proximal femoral focal deficiency, meaning her left leg was about half the length of her right leg. She underwent multiple limb-lengthening surgeries in which a surgeon cut the bone, then used a device called an external fixator to slowly stretch the limb as new bone formed. Her legs are now about the same length.

“Growing up, I was fascinated by how the fixator worked,” she says, and her surgeon, John Hertzenberg with the Rubin Institute for Advanced Orthopedics, took the time to explain his work with the surgical tool developed by a Russian physician.

Dockum knew bioengineers also often develop such devices, and her interest in bioengineering was born. “What I like about bioengineering is the understanding of the body through an engineering lens. It expands your perspective on solutions to physiological problems,” she says.

“I would like to work either in industry or research and focus on assistive technology—prosthetics and biomechanical devices. I want a career in developing those products, says Dockum, who is earning a BS in bioengineering in combination with an accelerated master’s degree in data analytics engineering.

She just received a Katona Scholarship for Academic Excellence in Bioengineering, which is awarded to students who have demonstrated strong academic performance, professional leadership within or outside the university, and exceptional promise for a successful bioengineering career that would benefit society.

To prepare for her career, Dockum worked two years as a research assistant in the Biomedical Imaging Lab under the direction of bioengineering professor Siddhartha Sikdar, whose team is seeking a new way to operate prostheses using ultrasound waves to sense muscle activity. 

“Dr. Sikdar encouraged me to pursue what I’m passionate about. He has provided help and resources and mentorship,” Dockum says.

Sikdar says, “Allison is an unusually motivated and perseverant student. Since her sophomore year, she has been working in my lab collaboratively with graduate students and postdocs developing data collection and analysis methods for a federally funded study involving upper extremity prosthesis control. I have been impressed with her passion and intellectual curiosity, and I think she has a bright career ahead.”

In the spring of 2020, Dockum was awarded a $1,500 research grant through the Undergraduate Research Scholars Program from the Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities, and Research (OSCAR) to study foot drop, a term for difficulty lifting the front part of the foot. It’s the sign of an underlying neurological, muscular, or anatomical problem.

It’s sometimes seen in people who have had a stroke, as well as those with cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy, says Dockum, who has a mild form of muscular dystrophy that impacts some of her day-to-day activities.

Because of the COVID-19 lockdown, she shifted the project to a study of motion data of the walking cycle. She hopes to continue this research while pursuing a doctorate.

For now, Dockum, whose bioengineering concentration is signals and systems, expanded her skills with a summer internship at the Tactical Electronic Warfare Division of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.

“In my section, the research focused on how to defend sensitive electronics from electronic attacks. I learned about wave theory with electromagnetics and developed a genetic optimization algorithm for the project I was working on,” she says.

“This internship taught me that even though I have a different career goal, the concepts I’m learning in class apply to a wide range of fields and areas of research,” says Dockum, who still works one day a week for the lab.

Things have a way of coming full circle, and skills she’s learning now could help her in the future.

“I would like to work at the National Institutes of Health one day,” she says. “Their programs and dedication to public health align with my passions.”

“Allison is an unusually motivated and perseverant student. ... I have been impressed with her passion and intellectual curiosity, and I think she has a bright career ahead.”

— Siddhartha Sikdar, professor of bioengineering

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