by Kim Plummer Krull
Amputees and prosthetics typically aren’t uppermost on the minds of most college students. But for Jonathan Naber and Adam Booher, the quest to develop an affordable prosthetic arm for people in developing countries has dominated much of their time at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Naber, 21, is president of Illini Prosthetic Technologies (IPT), which has grown from a group of engineering students into an incorporated nonprofit now field-testing pioneering prosthetic arm prototypes. Naber met Booher, 22, at the University Lutheran Church on campus and invited him to help build the IPT team.
Some 25 million people are amputees, according to IPT research, and 80 percent live in developing countries where few can afford costly limb replacements. IPT has garnered prestigious awards, including the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Illinois Student Prize, its single largest funding honor to date, that Naber earned last summer. Naber used the money to fund the team’s trip to Guatemala to test their prosthetics with amputees.
Both Naber and Booher say their faith fuels their desire to use their gifts to serve others. Naber grew up in Waterloo, Ill., as a member of Immanuel Lutheran Church; Booher in Springfield, Ill., as a member of Trinity Lutheran Church. Asthe pair recently graduated in May—Naber with a bachelor’s degree in materials science and engineering, Booher with a bachelor’s degree in engineering mechanics—they look back on how IPT came together and ahead to future plans.
The following is an edited Lutheran Witness (LW) interview with Naber (JN) and Booher (AB).
LW: You are college students working on supplying the developing world with affordable prosthetic arms. What sparked that unique interest?
JN: I spent my freshman year working to get really good grades, but I wasn’t doing any engineering work to help other people. That summer, I worked with people with disabilities who were family and friends. While I always had a passion for helping people, I started looking at how to help people in developing countries pull themselves out of poverty and have a better life.
AB: I came to college thinking that a career in the field of prosthetics might be a good way for me to use my God-given talent to have a direct, positive impact on peoples’ lives. When Jon approached me about building a team of students to work toward the goal of developing affordable prosthetic arms, I was extremely interested in being involved.
LW: Why focus on prosthetic arms?
JN: Only 10 percent of amputees are missing arms; most amputees have lost legs. Little research and development has been focused on prosthetic arms, leaving a huge gap in the technological development of prosthetic arms.
LW: You traveled last summer to Guatemala to field-test your prosthetics with amputees, including a 7-year-old girl who lost her arm in a vehicle accident and a 43-year-old victim of a machete attack. Aside from evaluating your prototype designs, what did you take away from that experience?
AB: As an organization, we have done a great deal of research on the need for prosthetics in the developing world, so we have many statistics that show the need is there. But when you actually meet the people who are missing arms or legs and interact with them personally, it takes it to a whole new level. Meeting the amputees firsthand really strengthened my resolve to build better prosthetic arms for them.
LW: Where does IPT’s work stand now, and when do you hope that people will be using IPT-designed prosthetic arms?
JN: We’re still developing the product. We’re doing field tests in Chicago this winter before returning to Guatemala for more field tests this summer. We hope to begin distributing in 2012, providing our prosthetic devices to non-governmental organizations, international aid groups and governments working with amputees in the developing world.
LW: How does your Lutheran faith impact your work with IPT and your plans for the future?
JN: Being brought up in the faith and sticking to it through college really made me want to go out and serve the Lord’s people. I believe every person should be working to fulfill God’s business.
AB: Through my Lutheran upbringing, I have always known to trust only in God and see Him as the source of all that is good. I believe God had a hand in bringing our team together, and that with His help, we will continue to work for good.
LW: What’s on tap now that you’ve graduated?
JN: I plan to commit myself 100 percent to IPT. Along with field-testing and modifying our prototypes, fund-raising is a big piece of our operation. We’ve been fortunate in getting some cash prizes and grants, but we’re always looking for people who want to support our vision for developing affordable prosthetics.
AB: Hopefully, to continue working on IPT. I applied to graduate school at the University of Illinois, and it would be great to continue my education and develop prosthetic arms at the same time.
About the Author: Kim Plummer Krull is a member of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Des Peres, Mo.
To learn more about Illini Prosthetic Technologies, visit www.supportipt.com.