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Dorothy Orzel on Functional Apparel Design

The Humans of the Wyss (HOW) series features members of the Wyss community discussing their work, the influences that shape them as scientists, and their collaborations at the Wyss Institute and beyond. 

After years in the clothing industry and teaching at an apparel program, Dorothy Orzel is thrilled to use her skills in a new, meaningful way as a functional apparel designer of wearable robotic devices at the Wyss. Her projects have included the soft glove and soft exosuit. Learn more about Dorothy and how she is making history with her work in this Humans of the Wyss.

What are you working on?

I’m a functional apparel designer working on wearable robotic devices, specifically those that help people with impaired walking.  I design, pattern, and sew all of the textile portions of these devices – with help of course.

Our early soft medical exosuit work was largely focused on stroke. One of our wearable exosuit systems was licensed to ReWalk Robotics and has been going through clinical studies for FDA approval. Currently we’re doing early-stage research on other ways to help with gait problems which can be caused by a variety of disorders. Our team consists of physical therapists, bio-mechanists, roboticists, mechanical engineers, computer controls people and designers. As we approached these new gait challenges, the team brainstormed how, where, and why we might be able to assist. Our gait exosuits work by carefully controlled pulling.

My role is to make textile parts that will fit, stay in place, be comfortable and efficiently transmit the forces needed to be effective. I work closely with our mechanical & robotic engineers in designing and creating prototypes. We test extensively on internal team members as we work through versions. When we think we are ready to test on our impaired volunteers, we put the devices on our physical therapists to get their comments and approval. Only then do we bring in the volunteers to try the devices in our motion capture lab.

While addressing the issues that are critical to the research stage, I try not to lose sight of the long term issues of making a sell-able product: things like cost, ease of manufacture, clean-ability, and ease of use.

What real-world problem does this solve?

We saw somebody feed himself for the first time in 8 years while wearing the glove. It’s powerful to see the impact of these technologies come to life.

Dorothy Orzel

I help people who have had strokes regain their mobility. It is very meaningful for stroke patients to be able to walk better because mobility has so many health implications beyond just getting from here to there. There’s a strong correlation between what your daily step count is and how much time you spend out in the community.

Previously I worked on the soft robotic glove for gripping, which helped people with spinal cord injuries regain their ability to grasp objects independently. That was amazing. We saw somebody feed himself for the first time in 8 years while wearing the glove. It’s powerful to see the impact of these technologies come to life.

What inspired you to get into this field?

I come from the apparel industry. The last 20+ years I taught part-time at an apparel program at a college in Seattle and had my own business doing technical design and patterns for a variety of companies. I’ve done a lot of work in the activewear industry where facilitating movement and function is key. I’ve done climbing clothing, bike clothing, skiwear, underwear, police tactical clothing – and for all of them, good fit and function is critical.

I first learned of the Wyss Institute when one of my students put the Functional Apparel Designer job description on my desk and said, “This job looks exactly like you!” I wasn’t looking for a job, especially not a job on the other side of the country. I lived in Seattle. I looked at the job description and was just blown away by how closely it aligned with my skillset. It sounded like an amazing opportunity. I was at a time in my life where moving was a possibility, so my husband and I decided to make the jump and come out here. It’s been incredibly rewarding to be able to use a set of skills that I have been honing for years, and apply them in a new, more meaningful way.

What continues to motivate you?

Dealing with our volunteers. The people who come and put on these devices have to have endless patience and good humor. Especially now that we are in early-stage research, the textiles, electronics, motors, and sensors are not yet integrated and it takes a long time just to put these things on our volunteers. Then we may test them under an array of different conditions, for example different speeds or forces. Or we might ask them to do an assortment of different tasks, repeatedly – without the device, with the device on but inactive, with the device on and active. It can be long and repetitive for the participant. If we need to adjust something mid-test we often descend on our subjects like a NASCAR crew mid-race. They’re good sports and they volunteer even though they know they probably won’t directly benefit from the results of the study. Plus, it can be a major effort for someone with a disability or in a wheelchair to get here. It is humbling to witness how generous and open they are with us.

The people I work with also motivate me – everybody is so smart and more importantly, great team members. I give Conor Walsh, our PI, such credit. He brings in people who can clearly communicate what they do which is critical on such multidisciplinary projects. We’re a diverse team in terms of our specialties, so we don’t all speak the same language. All the team members have to be able to clearly explain their subject to someone from an entirely different field.

What excites you most about your work?

There is always something new! It excites me that I have the ability to contribute to these devices. Literally, my skill set is making this device better. Before, I had clients where there was some meaning or reason behind what they were doing, but my current work is on a whole new level. It’s absolutely cutting-edge. The advances in the field of wearable robotics that will occur over the next ten years are going to be staggering.

It’s been incredibly rewarding to be able to use a set of skills that I have been honing for years, and apply them in a new, more meaningful way.

Dorothy Orzel

How have your previous experiences, such as working in the apparel industry and teaching, shaped your approach to your work today?

What I do now uses all of my previous knowledge – of industry, designing, manufacturing, patterning, sewing, and working with students – and brings it to a whole new level of functionality.

This is the soft robotic glove that Dorothy worked on. To make the glove comfortable and natural feeling to wearers, over several iterations of design, the actuators powering the movements of the glove were made smaller and were modified to distribute forces more evenly over the wearer’s fingers and thumb. The resulting soft, multi-segment actuators support the range of motions performed by biological fingers. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

My work in activewear and functional clothing has been crucial to my work at the Wyss, as has my experience with fitting. Humans come in a lot of different shapes and sizes!

I’ve worked with start-ups and large corporations so I have a broad sense of the business end and what it takes for a product to be successful. Learning about consumer acceptance – what the consumer is looking for and what they need – enables me to incorporate these elements into the design of a device.

My experience working with students has informed my approach to early-stage research. As a teacher, I found that it helps to have a tactile object in front of me. The same goes in this job – it really helps to have a something that I can point to and say, “When you say ‘X’, do you mean this?”, and point to a particular spot. Even a super early-stage prototype can provide a starting point for a valuable discussion.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I love exploring New England. I’m huge on obscure museums and there are a lot of them here. I am really interested in the history of manufacturing and the industrial revolution. Some of my favorites places are the Lowell National Historic Park, the Peabody Leather Workers Museum, the Charles River Museum and the Saugus Iron Works. I’ve even been to a puppetry museum in Connecticut.

If you had to choose an entirely different career path what would it be?

I’m currently doing my dream job – I really can’t imagine doing anything else. But, before I joined the Wyss Institute, my dream job would have been working for Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets. There are correlations between what I do now and puppetry. Because our exosuits work with cables, people sometimes say they are like marionettes. When I was at the puppet museum, I was discussing the development and use of large marionettes/costumes such as those from The Lion King with a curator. It turns out that in creating them they consult with bio-mechanists, use motion capture labs, and work through issues with engineers. Those are some serious parallels to my work!

What does it feel like to be working on cutting-edge technology that has the potential to have a real and significant impact on people’s lives and society?

It is just absolutely humbling. I always thought that my work as a teacher and a freelancer was meaningful, but my work today is on a whole other level. I feel so privileged to be contributing to something that I know is important.

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