Undergrad student makes strides in mobility research

Hannah Luben, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering, gets a head start in academic research through the Shuman Scholars program


By Erin Cassidy Hendrick

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Hannah Luben, a Penn State mechanical engineering senior, said, “I’m passionate about two things — mechanical engineering and helping people.”

She was able to pursue both of these passions as a Shuman Scholar. Launched in the Department of Mechanical Engineering (ME) in 2019, the scholar program provides undergraduate students with the opportunity to conduct a long-term research project during their studies. Alumnus Clyde Shuman and his wife, Nancy, funded the creation of this program.

Luben contributed to two studies conducted under Anne Martin, the Martin W. Trethewey Early Career Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering, who leads the Gait Optimization (GO) Lab. Both projects pursued ways to determine the likelihood that certain populations would experience a fall.

The first, focused on the walking patterns of the elderly, used the program Nexus to visually recreate the lower limbs of these subjects while they walked through the use of sensors attached to their legs. Much like facial computer-generated images used in movies, the program uses several cameras to capture different angles of a person’s gait to create a visualization.

The second study focused on patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Luben helped to design the study alongside Martin, Andrew Geronimo, assistant professor of neurosurgery in the College of Medicine, and Meghan Lukac, a mechanical engineering graduate student.

“I was with this project since its implementation,” Luben said. “I learned some new coding languages and helped set up the framework for the study.”

The study planned to record ALS patients’ walking data twice weekly using an app designed at Penn State and gather additional data during in-person clinical visits at the Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. However, with clinical studies postponed due to the pandemic, the lab switched gears.

Martin’s team had always planned on conducting a significant amount of at-home reporting data with patients, in tandem with the clinical studies. They shifted most of their focus to these phone-guided studies to decrease the amount of in-person contact needed. The researchers are confident their work will provide insights into the population’s injury risk, even with the adjustments to the project.

“We have only just begun recruiting patients and collecting data in the past few months, which is very exciting,” Luben said.

She explained that while the day-to-day technical challenges of the projects were interesting, she is inspired by a larger purpose.

“The big picture is, we can help these at-risk communities,” Luben said. “It’s really rewarding to conduct research in a field that I know will help people.”

She plans to pursue these goals further, as she recently accepted an offer to continue her studies as a graduate student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

“My research as a Shuman Scholar was a large factor in deciding to stay at Penn State for graduate school,” she said. “If I’m able to continue this work, it could be a step forward in helping people with these conditions.”


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A student smiles in front of a blue background.

Hannah Luben, undergraduate student in mechanical engineering and a Shuman scholar. IMAGE: PROVIDED BY HANNAH LUBEN

“The big picture is, we can help these at-risk communities. It’s really rewarding to conduct research in a field that I know will help people.”
—Hannah Luben, undergraduate student in mechanical engineering