Lab Project Changes a Life

05/18/2007
By From the Lowell Sun

By David Perry
Lowell Sun

In her smile, Michael Darish found his purpose.

Darish, 50, graduated from Medford High School in 1975, spent some "unfocused" time in college and worked lots of jobs. He worked for his father's automotive business and zigzagged through other school programs, earning certificates or not completing them. He married, he divorced, no kids.

He worked for engineering companies. A problem, a solution. He liked fixing things.

"I always believed I had a purpose," says Darish, who lives in Andover. "I just never knew what it was."

In 2003, he enrolled in UMass Lowell's electrical engineering program. His fourth time in school, the first time he said, "This degree is for me."

About two years ago, in Alan Rux's electronics lab, a screen filled with a picture of Anna Magliano of Turin, Italy. She was 3 years old, confined to a wheelchair after an automobile accident left her paralyzed from the neck down. The breathing tube she couldn't live without was fastened to her neck. She was smiling.

"I saw that picture, and it kind of got to me," says Darish, sitting in the electronics lab on the fourth floor of Ball Hall.

She needed help, Rux told his class. Her father's worldwide Internet search led him to UMass Lowell's Assistive Technology Program. He hoped someone could help develop a device that would let Anna click and drag the cursor on her computer, using her voice. She used an infrared camera and head movements to use the computer, but it was cumbersome. And he wanted something she could better control by the time she went to school.

Darish was hooked.

In 1991, UMass Lowell's College of Engineering launched its Assistive Technology Program, which pits students against problems that hinder the functional capabilities of people with mental and physical challenges.

Seven years ago, says UML engineering Technical Support Associate Rux, the "Senior Capstone" projects became graduation requirements for graduation. Parts are paid for by a grant from the National Science Foundation, students supply the labor and the resulting projects are delivered to clients free of charge.

Rux calls it a "service learning experience," which involves "custom engineering, for free."

Darish often arrived at his lab station as early as 5 a.m., and spent 10 hours a day there, working on Anna's device, in addition to his classwork.

"I lived in here," he says, sitting at the workstation, where the picture of Anna is taped. "I love this room."

Over three semesters, Darish worked to incorporate a voice-recognition chip, to write software to create the device, which is about the size of a notebook computer. And while he was there, he made it so the voice-controlled system would operate a handheld fan, a toy that lights up and blows bubbles, and another toy, a bear that bangs a drum. And he made the device voice-compatible with the telephone.

Some students headed for beaches during spring break, but Darish went to northern Italy, with videographer Valerie Parker, hired by the university to document the trip.

The university paid for the trip, but Darish says, "I was going either way."

He spent a week there, gradually introducing Anna to her voice-controlled system, tinkering to perfect it.

"She was, being a 5-year-old, a bit apprehensive at first,' says Darish. "But her father knew just what to do. He says, 'let's show your brother.' And she instantly wanted to know more."

Anna's father, Andrea, and mother, Grazia, are engineers for competing telecommunications companies. They grasped the technology.

They were "a bit overwhelmed by it all," says Darish. "And very grateful."

He may patent the device, and he's already thinking of other ways to improve Anna's life.

"As I said to her father, I don't think this is the end. This is just the beginning."

Darish will graduate in a few weeks, with a bachelor's in electrical engineering. He returns for the master's program in the fall. Those things are for him. Along the way, he found his purpose. And that was for Anna.

"If I never do anything else," he says, "this was great."