Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The art of the Personal Statement

This has been a rough semester. At the moment, my oldest is three and a half years old, the younger is almost 16 months. They're in school three days a week, I take care of them on the other two. I have a new job, working as an independent agent for AFLAC. I'm taking Anatomy and Physiology. And on top of that, I'm trying to hammer out an essay for my grad school applications. (I think I need to take GREs, too, but one thing at a time...)

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Tonight I've been trying to hammer out a concise personal statement on what I want to do, and how I think a masters' degree in O/P (Orthotics and Prosthetics) will help me do that. And it's had my head spinning.

There's a lot of really cool stuff going on with Lower extremity prosthetics and bionics right now. It's exciting, and I want to know more, but it's really more a point of curiosity than anything else.

I really want to work with upper extremity stuff. I've been working with my hands for 24 years. I spent ten years working with my hands at a remarkably high level, at North Bennet Street School, and afterwards. And I spent a lot of time, reading about woodworking, and about Sloyd training, which was a major influence on what is still taught at North Bennet today.

The heart of Sloyd was found in working with one's hands. The basic idea was that one could teach children not just to be good workers, but to be good and upright citizens, through craftsmanship. Aesthetics were taught as an offshoot, because the aim was not just to produce, but to produce something useful, and beautiful. Through determination and effort, children could be taught to appreciate the value of one person's work. And, to appreciate their own abilities.

Woodworking was introduced at MIT around the same time, because the president of MIT thought it was important for engineering students to work in a three dimensional medium, to learn how to think in three dimensions, and not just on paper. (I can't come up with a citation on this, need to dig through my notes.)

And behind all of that, is a point that I make to various people, that doing things by hand will engage your brain in a much different way than doing things in theory, or on paper: Any child who has ever pulled a nail with a hammer will develop a much more intuitive understanding or leverage than a kid who reads about leverage in a book. I think that some of that has to do with the anatomy of the brain, and how it processes motor/ proprioceptive stuff in the cerebellum, and integrates it all with the logical thinking that goes on in the cerebrum. But my knowledge of all of that it still tenuous at best, so I'll leave that point as it is.

But children these days (from what I understand) are issued cheaper, simpler prosthetics, with the understanding that they're going to grow like weeds, and a fancy appliance would be outgrown quickly. As a result, at a time when children are absorbing everything they can, and their brains are growing and adapting, their ability to physically interact with the world is being hindered by crappy prosthetics.

There's a concept of human development called a critical period: It's a period of time during which certain processes and understandings grow and are shaped by interaction with the world, and after that critical period, development, if it's even possible, is stunted. So one of the things I worry about is that these children are missing out on critical cognitive development because their physiology is  insulated from so much of what they might be able to experience. On some level, I get that a missing hand is a missing hand. It's a tragic thing, and at some level, it can't be helped. But at the same time, I can't help but wonder if they are missing out on the opportunity to learn to do things skillfully with a prosthetic, simply because the equipment provided doesn't allow for the development of that skill set: A skill set that would make that more advanced prosthetic more functionally useful when they get older.

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So, you might think from this that what I really should do is go back to school and become an engineer. On the one hand, that might be interesting. But from talking to friends who are engineers by training and trade, I've been told otherwise:

"If you want to do the cool stuff, you need a masters degree." (I have a BA in English. I'd be starting from scratch, again, some more. I'll be turning 43 in May. I only have so many fresh starts left.)

"We don't actually get to build things. We mostly do it in CAD, and then send it out, so we're not really involved in the process of making whatever it is. Testing the final product isn't typically done by us, and we don't have a good handle on the manufacturing process, so sometimes the process of getting from concept to execution is... messy, and imperfect." (I spent 7 years building custom pieces, one at a time, from concept to execution, and learning to refine both design and build the process, by hand.)

Long-term, I want very much to design new arms for children that will grow with them. I think it would be great to work with engineers, but at this stage, I'd want to do it in a team setting that allowed for a full-spectrum process (concept to execution) in house, and in a setting that worked directly with the kids who are using the damn things. I know a lot about developing skill, and helping other people to do the same. I'm also very good at designing things in a way that both informs how they'll be made, and is informed by the manufacturing process. I'll leave the CAD/ CAM and engineering work to an engineer. That's what teams are good for. (Committees are where good design goes to die... but it takes a team to move the ball down the field.)

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On top of all of that, there's a trend I've been reading about that bothers me. At one end of the spectrum, there's a lot of really, really cool stuff being developed that has the potential to help a lot of people. On the other end of the spectrum, politics around health care in this country is such that people in some states can lose an arm on the job, and all they get is a lump sum of about $45,000. (and that's before lawyer's fees, etc)  So these folks won't necessarily be seeing as much in the way of high tech solutions. (Or, if they do see them, their situation is such that this would actually be more helpful.) And so that's another area where I want to see how I can influence things. I spent so many years building jigs and fixtures for various tasks in the shop, I really want to see if there's a way I can work collaboratively with those in need to develop prosthetic jigs and fixtures for earning a living, that will fall within the limits of what they can afford, or get reimbursed for.

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The only question that remains, is how to fit the above into 4500 characters, or less.