Not all professors at UW–Madison hold their positions in as high esteem as Professor Jay Martin does his. Martin, a professor of mechanical engineering, values the opportunities his position at the university provides him. “I feel a very strong sense of responsibly to do things that this position will allow me to do that maybe other people cannot,” says Martin, when asked about his role as a professor. Throughout his life, Martin has been improving the lives of those around him. After receiving his undergraduate degree in physics from Indiana University, Martin served in the Peace Corps for two and a half years teaching physics and calculus in a secondary school in Kenya. Now, at UW–Madison, Martin is changing the lives of people with physical disabilities through his research in assistive technology.
Over 11 years ago, Martin co-founded UW-CREATe (Center for Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology) with the help of Professor Frank Fronczak, Professor Nicola Ferrier and the late Professor Terry Richard. In his own words, Martin describes UW-CREATe as “a cooperative effort of faculty and students.” He says, “The objective is to develop and use technology to assist with any sort of disability.” With UW-CREATe’s success, hopefully more people with disabilities will be able to live independently. UW-CREATe’s work is often focused on general advancements in the field of assistive technology. The group has significantly improved the bone modeling process in addition to enhancing the process by which human motion is captured and modeled. UW-CREATe also works with individuals on a case-by-case basis. Recently, they designed a tricycle for a child who was not able to operate the standard tricycle handlebars. To accommodate this challenge, the team developed a steering system that was able to be completely controlled by the child’s lower body. The idea for UW-CREATe came to Martin as he spent much of his time visiting hospitals in late 1999.
In July, 1999 Martin’s oldest son was involved in a diving accident that left him paralyzed from midchest-down. Subsequently, Martin spent the majority of his time the next few months in hospitals and other medical facilities. He rapidly recognized how poorly designed technology was for those who had disabilities. “There was so much need for design work in assistive technology,” says Martin; he noted the assistive technology of the time was “often unsafe or didn’t meet the intended function.” As he was being exposed to all of this, he also realized how much of the necessary technology didn’t exist at all.
At the time, Martin was the director of the Engine Research Center on campus. He was successfully established in the field of engine research, but soon after his son’s accident, he realized that he was no longer comfortable in the position. Martin felt he needed to work in an entirely different field—a field where he could a make a world of difference for those with a bleak outlook for the future.
Martin consulted Professor John Mitchell, a colleague Martin considers a mentor. After hearing Mitchell’s positive feedback on his idea, Martin went to Professor Neil Duffie, the department chair at the time. Duffie, too, thought that Martin had a fantastic idea. Mere months after realizing the need for improved assistive technology, Martin co-founded UW-CREATe. “I often think that if I hadn’t been [at UW–Madison], that wouldn’t have happened,” says Martin. Soon after UW-CREATe was founded, Martin started receiving requests from fellow faculty members and students who wanted to help. Martin, excited to share his mission with others, gladly accepted their offer.
Martin’s group has expanded since its inception 11 years ago; it is now comprised of around 35 members. Six faculty members are active in UW-CREATe, and the rest of the members are students—graduate and undergraduate alike. Currently, the project of UW-CREATe that Martin is most excited about is a wheelchair—perhaps the most innovative wheelchair ever designed. Typical powered wheelchairs draw their power from extremely heavy batteries that total around one hundred pounds. One key feature of UW-CREATe’s Advanced Powered Wheelchair Systems Project (APW) is a hybrid power system. A propane engine is included to significantly decrease the weight of the wheelchair as well as improve its overall efficiency.
The APW is made up of many innovative components. A small, robotic arm will be attached to allow the user to perform everyday functions that are simply daunting to a person with physical disability. Some of these functions include pushing elevator buttons, opening and closing doors, and operating vending machine buttons. The wheelchair will also include seat heating and cooling capacities as many users are very temperature sensitive. In addition, APW will incorporate an airbag system to ensure the safety of its passenger. The airbag system is designed to protect the passenger in the case of a wheelchair tip-over or an automobile accident (in which the wheelchair is secured within the vehicle).
Advanced Powered Wheelchair Systems Project can be thought of as a multi-component test run. Most of the components that make this wheelchair unique have never before been implemented in the field of assistive technology. If components of AWP’s design prove to be successful, it is likely that they will be included in the large-scale manufacturing of powered wheelchairs for years to come. It is clear that Martin harbors a deep passion for the field of assistive technology. With other engineering research fields, the opportunities for unprecedented projects are few-and-far-between. Martin remarks that “this field is so wide open.”
I feel a very strong sense of responsibly to do things that this position will allow me to do that maybe other people cannot.Professor Jay Martin
While Martin thoroughly enjoys his research in assistive technology, he also adores other aspects of his job. One of his favorites is advising; Martin serves as an official advisor to students, but loves to provide guidance to any student who seeks it. Martin delights in helping students make big decisions; he sees laying out options and predicting implications as exciting and worthwhile.
Martin feels it is his obligation to use his position to make a difference in the lives of students and the community around him. “I think that, for me, the best position is professor. And I also happen to think that the professor position is such an amazing position because of the freedom that you have and the potential ability you have to affect students. I always treat this position with a lot of respect,” Martin responds when asked about his job. Martin has truly found his home at UW–Madison.
Jay Martin was also featured in the December 1993 issue of the Wisconsin Engineer Magazine. The article can be found within our archives.