Written by: Jonathan M. Pitts
Kavita Krishnaswamy had labored through a decade of coursework in math and computer sciences to achieve a perfect 4.0 grade-point average. The University of Maryland, Baltimore County graduate student had invented robotic devices that are discussed around the world. She’d spent three years narrowing the focus of her doctoral dissertation.
But when the day arrived to defend her dissertation proposal before the panel of senior academics who would allow her to proceed, she never showed up.
She sent her robot.
Krishnaswamy lives with spinal muscular atrophy, a rare genetic disorder in which a breakdown of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord prevents the brain from sending the messages that direct muscular movement. She defended her proposal the way she participates in every class and lecture — through the Beam, a rolling, two-way-telecasting robot that she operates from 16 miles away.
Paralyzed from the neck down but for a few muscles in her right hand, the 35-year-old Columbia woman needs round-the-clock care and rarely leaves her home. But she spends her days and nights designing devices that, like the robot she uses to visit UMBC and points beyond, help those living with severe disabilities to attain greater independence.
Already a recipient of Ford and National Science Foundation fellowships, she has now earned more funding for her research from two more awards: the Microsoft Fellowship and the Google Lime Scholarship.
Krishnaswamy designs robotic devices to allow severely disabled people to move their arms and legs simply by moving a computer trackball, speaking or changing their facial expressions. She is pursuing a doctorate in computer science.
“I’m always asking how technology can help a person who has a disability become more independent,” she says. “We need to keep creating more and better technology so that society as a whole can be more independent.”
Krishnaswamy, who is due to earn her doctorate next year, is working with one eye on the clock. Her illness is progressive. It could rob her of her remaining mobility — and her ability to breathe — with little warning.
Changing the world is a lot to ask of anyone, let alone a person who needs a machine to connect with it, and has no idea whether her time on Earth is numbered in decades, years or weeks.
Those who know Krishnaswamy say if anyone can invent a way, she can.
Building to specs
Krishnaswamy was born in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the daughter of Ramesh Krishnaswamy, who holds a Ph.D. in physics, and his wife, Pushpa, who has a B.A. in economics.
SMA affects one in every 10,000 births. In healthy individuals, a gene known as SMN1 produces a protein needed by the motor neurons that control most muscles. People with SMA can’t animate those muscles, leaving them to atrophy and eventually become paralyzed from disuse.
Sixty percent have the severest form of SMA, Type I, which appears during infancy, makes breathing difficult and usually causes death by age 2. Another 20 percent have Type II, which materializes after a child learns to sit up and prevents further development.
Type II patients never crawl, walk or stand. All settle into a plateau of gradually decreasing strength.
All need extensive caregiving. A few survive into their 50s.
Dr. Thomas Crawford, a pediatric neurologist with Johns Hopkins Medicine who has treated Krishnaswamy since she was 12, says her condition is not unusual for a Type II adult.
“She is profoundly weak,” he says. “She’s not sitting. She manages [her] communication device with the barest little bit of power in her fingers. She has her eyes and her voice — those work. And she has her intelligence, which is substantial.”
In some ways, Krishnaswamy’s life has been a process of harnessing that intelligence and putting it to effective use.
Growing up, she was always a star in math, even as she dealt with skeletal pain and spinal fusion surgeries. She could operate a wheelchair during her high school years but had no idea whether she’d ever had the strength or the opportunity to attend college.
In 1998, as a member of the math, engineering and science achievements club at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia, she became the first student in school history to take part in the statewide robotics competition sponsored by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
Unable to construct a device herself, she designed one digitally. Her younger brothers built it to her specs.
The competition was a race. Her device — a robot encased in a penguin costume — won third place, and a light went on in her mind.
“I was thinking maybe there’s something I can really do with this,” she recalls. “Maybe I could do something more helpful to others. Maybe I could help to design the kind of technologies that could help people like me.”
Bridging a gap
Talk with Krishnaswamy about her achievements — whether it’s in person, by Skype, or via the Beam, the nearly $15,000 telepresence device she uses to conduct her academic and professional business — and she’ll eventually sound like an Academy Award winner thanking the many people who have made her success possible.
First come her parents, particularly her mother, who have provided most of the hands-on care throughout her life, from feeding and bathing her to moving her hand to the mouse she uses to operate her computer.
“My children's lives are very important to me, so there is no job too difficult for me,” Pushpa says. “Nothing equates to a mother’s care.”
The message took root.
“My parents always told me never to give up,” Krishnaswamy says, “and never to let failure near me.”
Then there are the Howard County teachers who expanded her sense of what was possible for her: MESA adviser Marie Boston, who convinced her she could succeed in the IEEE competition, and Fran Dummett, who drove her to the UMBC campus to show her a college she believed would welcome her, and others...(continued)
This article first appeared in The Baltimore Sun on September 15, 2017. Read the rest of the article here.