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The Right Touch : Busy Man on Campus Tinkers With Electrical Switches, Gears to Operate Artificial Limbs

February 16, 1986|STEVEN R. CHURM | Times Staff Writer

WHITTIER — Bill Ludlam says he sleeps seven, sometimes eight hours a night. But one wonders how, with his schedule.

The Whittier College senior is an entrepreneur, grossing $20,000 a year from a mail-order optical business he runs from his dormitory room on campus.

He is an A-minus student who is headed to New York University's acclaimed brain research center this summer to work before going to medical school.

He plays on Whittier's lacrosse team, and in December he came within a whisker of becoming only the third Rhodes Scholar in the college's 99-year history.

Most intriguing of all, however, may be his senior project, which revolves around a two-foot-high model of a human hand. Ludlam, 21, spent more than 200 hours building the plexiglass model as part of his study of prosthetic devices and how to attach them to the human body. Although the project is far from a medical breakthrough, it does reflect Ludlam's growing romance with medical research.

"I have a lot of options," Ludlam said, "but my real love is medicine and research."

Ludlam, a chemistry major, has always been an overachiever.

When he was 16, looking for summer work near his Oregon home, his father lent him several thousand dollars--and his years of experience as an eye doctor and medical school professor--to start a business manufacturing special optical lenses and prisms for children with sight problems. Now he has clients across the country and he employs several classmates to help grind, polish and distribute the visual aids.

When Ludlam arrived at Whittier College four years ago, he became the first premed student to enroll in the Scholars Program. Students in the program design their own curricula, rather than follow a prescribed course list. Initially the program attracted mostly sociology and theater arts majors, but Ludlam helped pave the way for students from technical and scientific disciplines.

"In a way he's a path breaker," said Richard Archer, director of the Scholars Program.

The idea for his senior project first came to Ludlam in high school. He has always pondered ways to improve artificial limbs.

Traditionally, most prosthetic devices have been attached to human muscles by a series of cables. When the muscles contract, the cables move the artificial hand, arm or leg. But completing even routine movements--picking up a plate or walking across a street--with a cable-operated limb, often requires above-average strength and muscle tone, Ludlam said. "Particularly for women, it is very tiring," he said. "And after a while they begin to develop muscles like a linebacker."

Rather than use cables, Ludlam settled on the notion of using electrical switches implanted in the muscles to operate an artificial limb. When the muscles moved, they would flip a switch and activate the limb electrically through a network of a lightweight wires.

Ludlam said he believes this type of prosthetic device is better because it weighs less and gives the user more movement.

To test his theory, Ludlam has implanted several electronic switches in the hind legs of laboratory mice to study how the devices work as the animals push a small cart.

Seven Tiny Motors

He also built his hand model, complete with seven tiny motors, a series of switches and gears purchased at a local hobby shop. It cost roughly $150, but Ludlam said the experience was priceless. He has no plans to market his research--or the hand model--largely because several medical schools, principally the University of Utah, are developing a similar kind of prosthetic arm.

The project typifies Ludlam's creative drive. Tagged by friends as a "workaholic," he admits he loves a challenge. Problem solving is his specialty. "Hard work has never bothered me," he said recently while sitting in a tiny laboratory on the fifth floor of the college's science building where he tinkers with his hand model and runs his optical business.

In December, Ludlam survived a series of interviews and written tests to become one of 12 finalists from the Pacific Northwest, his home region, in the Rhodes Scholar competition. A chance to study at Oxford University in England for two years was tempting, but only 34 U. S. students are accepted each year. Four were selected from Ludlam's region. He was not one of them.

But the disappointment lasted less than a day because Ludlam had other plans. This summer he begins a yearlong project for New York University interviewing leaders in the neurological field for a book the school plans to publish in 1987. "Can you believe it?" he asked. "I'm going to be talking to some of the great minds in the field."

These days, working weekends is often part of Ludlam's routine. But one night a week, he pushes the books aside, closes the ledger on his business and goes out in search of fun.

"It's important to clear the head," he said, "and just let everything go."

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