The Catholic University of America

Alumni Relations

Albert A. Adams III, B.B.E. 2007, footwear project engineer at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development, and Engineering Center in Natick, Mass.

  
 


We asked this month's spotlight a few questions. Below are his answers.

AR: Tell us a little bit about yourself, how did you choose to study biomedical
engineering?


AA: My interest in biomedical engineering and biomechanics began in high school. After
injuring my knee playing football, I started researching knee injuries and reading about
the anatomy of the joint. Unlike many of the subjects I had studied in school, I found
that I never tired of reading about the physiology of the human body. Eventually I was
able to take an anatomy class my senior year of high school. It was during a discussion
in that class regarding the connection between the mechanics of the body and athletic
performance that I knew I had found my future career path. At the time that I was applying
for college, there were less than a dozen schools with accredited biomedical engineering programs, so I visited CUA. After talking to Dr. Hidler of the biomedical engineering
department about his work in biomechanics and rehabilitation engineering at the nearby National Rehabilitation Hospital, I was hooked.

AR: Tell us about your career path? How did you get started? What were some of your positions along the way?


AA: After finishing my freshman year at CUA, I was lucky enough to spend a summer as an intern in the Biomechanics Lab at
the U.S. Army's Natick Soldier Center. I spent that summer processing data from a study on the effects of various backpack
loads on soldiers' balance and stability. The processing of motion capture data was slow and tedious, but the exposure to
active biomechanics research that I gained that summer was invaluable. I learned firsthand how the engineering mechanics I
was learning in school applied to human movement, and how biomechanics research could be used to improve the lives and
well-being of soldiers. Budget issues at the Army labs prevented them from bringing me back to work the following summer,
but also presented me with an opportunity to broaden my work experiences. Thanks to the knowledge and skills I had gained
from my sophomore course and my previous work for the Army, I quickly found a summer position at the Liberty Mutual
Research Institute for Safety. Funded entirely by the well known insurance company, Liberty Mutual Group, the Research
Institute focused on the prevention of occupational injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome and back injuries from lifting.
Though still only a student intern, I was given a large amount of responsibility by Liberty Mutual as I was asked to take the
lead on the testing and data collection for a study into the effects of repetitive power tool use on wrists and hands. The study
was designed to improve workplace ergonomics for factory workers insured by Liberty Mutual in order to reduce the number of
injuries to workers, as well as the frequency of insurance claims resulting from such injuries. While leading the study, I
managed the recruitment of research volunteers, organized the testing schedule, and applied sensors to volunteers' arms to
measure muscle activity and fatigue during power tool use. I was also introduced to the intricacies and difficulties associated
with testing human subjects, knowledge that would become useful during my senior capstone project.

Just prior to graduation, I received full-time job offers from both the Biomechanics Lab at the Natick Soldier Center and the
Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety. I was very proud to have these offers, especially as the economy was spiraling
downward, but decided to continue my education by going to graduate school for my master's degree at Worcester
Polytechnic Institute. Luckily, the Natick Soldier Center was willing to allow me to work part-time while attending graduate
school. This allowed me to take classes while also working on several Army research studies, eventually intertwining the two
in my master's thesis, titled "The Effects of Extremity Armor on Metabolic Cost and Gait Biomechanics." The project
compared the effects of various levels of ballistic armor, designed to protect soldiers against the IEDs encountered in Iraq and
Afghanistan, on soldiers' mobility and physical performance.

After completing my master's degree, I continued working for the Army full time, working primarily on research pertaining to
robotic exoskeletons. Exoskeletons are wearable robotic systems designed to reduce the physical strain on soldiers and
increase their work rate by offloading to the device the heavy loads they are asked to carry. Unfortunately, all exoskeletons
presented to the Army thus far by industry and academia have resulted in the soldiers expending more energy to walk in the
devices than if they were to carry the loads themselves without any external system. To better understand why these
advanced robotic systems are having negative impacts on the users rather than reducing their work rate, we partnered with robotics engineers from Yale University. Unlike our previous evaluations of existing exoskeletons that we could only test in the
form in which they were presented to us, partnering with Yale gave us an exoskeleton specifically designed for scientific
research. This meant that we could adjust the exoskeleton in order to scientifically analyze how specific design
characteristics, such as the level of powered assistance of the device or the hinge design, affected the amount of energy
soldiers used while walking in the exoskeleton.


AR: Tell us about your position as footwear project engineer? What are your responsibilities?


AA: In the last few months, I have been reassigned from the scientific research where I spent the last eight years to a product
development position. My new role as the lead footwear engineer places me as the technical lead on the development and
sustainment of combat boots and other footwear for the entire U.S. Army. Taking on this new challenge has been really
exciting so far, and it allows me to really impact something that every soldier wears and truly depends upon on a daily basis.
My background in biomedical engineering and biomechanics was great preparation for this position, as it gave me a great
understanding of the most important element of the combat boots, the soldier wearing them. Even if you develop the most
rugged, most technologically advanced boots in the world, it's worthless if it injures soldiers or prevent them from
performing their duties. Combat boots require a human-centric design, as well as an understanding of the specialized needs
that soldiers have for the footwear that they live in for 12 to 18 months in harsh environments.


AR: What are some challenges you face daily in regards to your job? What do you enjoy the most?

AA: This new job has presented new challenges and also given me an opportunity to vastly expand my knowledge beyond
biomechanics and physiology to new areas, such as material science and textile technology. I have really enjoyed the
educational aspect to it, partially because I get to see the manufacturing and testing of materials firsthand from industry
experts in each respective field. I have already met with representatives from leather and synthetic textile manufacturers, and
have taken tours of places like the Vibram factory that makes boot soles for the Army. Most people are surprised to hear
that the makers of those "Five Fingers" minimalist running shoes are also making the bottoms of every pair of boots that the
Army buys.

We are constantly working with the footwear industry to improve the boots issued to each soldier. If there is an opportunity to
make hot weather boots more breathable or cold weather boots more waterproof, we will pursue it. A great recent example of
meeting the needs of soldiers with advanced footwear is the Mountain Combat Boot. Soldiers needed footwear that was
durable and supportive enough to use in the rocky, mountainous environment of Afghanistan. The existing combat boots just weren't designed for that type of terrain and its jagged rocks. Taking pointers from commercially available hiking boots, new footwear with stiffer soles, padded ankles, and rubber toe and heel caps were designed and shipped directly to the battlefield
to support the needs of our troops. But getting new boots in the field is only the start. Once fielded, we are constantly working
to improve the design and durability of the boots. Feedback from soldiers about the footwear comes back to Natick through
many different channels, including surveys from soldiers returning from deployment and reports from medical staff at Army
training centers within the U.S. That input may lead us to troubleshooting specific boot issues, or developing a new boot from
the ground up.

AR: What is a typical day of work like for you?


AA: A typical day for me includes at least one meeting or phone call with representatives from the footwear industry or
manufacturers of materials that could be used in footwear. If there is a new material or a new waterproof treatment that may
be of use to the Army, we investigate it.

On a daily basis I also respond to a very wide variety of footwear issues or needs from throughout the Army. It could be an
email from a colonel in Alaska whose soldiers need warmer boots for ice climbing, or it could be a complaint from someone
who is having fitting problems while issuing boots to new recruits in basic training.

Most of my day is spent writing or reviewing technical documents regarding the testing of new boots or the production
requirements of boots to be ordered by the Army. My office is also attached to a footwear lab, where we test the traction,
durability, stiffness, insulation, and water resistance of new and existing footwear. Having a hands-on aspect to the job was a
key to my accepting this position. 

AR: What is the most interesting event or person that you have come across in your line of work?

AA: The most surprising event since I started my new position as the footwear engineer was the huge amount of attention
from the press that the new Mountain Combat Boot received a few months ago. After the Army issued a press release
regarding an update to the existing Mountain Combat Boots, we received calls from the Boston Globe, the Washington Post,
and Forbes Magazine. A reporter from BBC America even came to our lab to do an interview for radio. I knew that boots were
essential to soldiers, but before that, I had no idea how much of a high profile position I had taken.

AR: How did Catholic University prepare you for your current career? Any specific courses that you took or
experiences you had while a student?


AA: CUA prepared me for my career in a number of ways. The engineering and science classes I took at Catholic built the
foundation for my graduate school education and my work with the Army, but it was the engineering design classes my junior
and senior years that stand out as the most important. Not only did those courses give me the opportunity to put all the
classroom knowledge that I gained to a practical application, but they also gave me a chance to learn about the difficulties
and intricacies of working with a diverse team and managing the workload across team members. Since graduating, I have
worked with very intelligent young scientists and engineers who did not have similar experiences in school, and had to learn
those lessons about teamwork the hard way while on the job.

AR: Were there any specific faculty members who mentored you?


AA: For my senior design project, Ron Hupczey, B.B.E. 2007, Megan Payne, B.B.E. 2007, and I built a rehabilitation robot to
help stroke patients regain strength and control of paralyzed hands. It was a huge undertaking for three undergrads, but we
had a lot of support from the engineering professors. Dr. Lum, Dr. Hidler, and Dr. Tran of the biomedical engineering department mentored us throughout the project and beyond, really working with us step-by-step and helping us to figure out the intricacies
of building a robot from scratch. We also turned to Dr. Matthews of the electrical engineering department for help with the
circuitry and machining of the components. After three months of intense work, we had a working rehab robot that we were actually able to test on clinical stroke patients thanks to physical therapist Susan Ryerson from Arlington, Va., who had
worked with Dr. Lum in the past and was willing to let us use both her practice and her patients.  

AR: When you are not working at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development, and Engineering Center,
what do you like to do?


AA: I spend most of my time outside of work playing with my two-year-old daughter. Coloring books, puzzles, and playing
dress up account for more of my time than I would like to admit. We also do a lot of traveling, visiting family all over the
country and spending weekends in the mountains of New Hampshire or the beaches of Cape Cod. In the summer I also try to
get out fishing, canoeing and kayaking with my buddies when I can. I also really enjoy cooking, especially grilling, so we have
family and friends over for cookouts and football parties regularly.

About a year ago I joined the local Knights of Columbus, after realizing that I wasn't very involved in my new parish. I had
always heard about the Knights at CUA, especially at the Basilica, but I never knew much about them. Working with the
Knights has given me a great chance to regularly contribute to my community and help do my part to maintain our church.

AR: Do you keep in touch with other friends or classmates from CUA? If so, how? Who in particular?


AA: Thanks to Facebook, it seems like I am able to keep in touch with almost everyone I knew from Catholic. I've also been
able to spend some time with friends from CUA at a few weddings and business trips over the years. Just last month I was
able to catch up with my old roommate Kevin Milsted, B.M.E. 2007, while I was in Springfield, Va., for work, and I already
have plans to meet up with a few other guys the next time I'm in the area.

AR: What is one of your favorite memories of your time at Catholic University?


AA: I have a lot of great memories from my time at Catholic, including the Luaupaloozas at the end of the spring semester,
the "movies on the mall," and countless concerts at the 9:30 Club. One of my favorite memories, though, was definitely the
"Operation Ceasefire" concert/protest on the National Mall in 2005. I wasn't 100% sure at the time what the event was
protesting against, but my roommate, Matt Horn, B.S.Arch. 2007, M.Arch. 2009, and I were happy to join thousands of
people in protest if it meant a free concert from over 20 bands, including the front man of the Dead Kennedys, Ted Leo +
the Pharmacists, and The Bouncing Souls. It was one of the biggest and craziest concerts I have ever been to in my life,
and I will never forget the deafening protest chants led by Jello Biafra or the 200-foot-wide mosh pit during The Bouncing Souls
performance.

 


















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