‘We’re not going to have enough scientists’
Questions for Alon Wolf
Although Alon Wolf is a native of Kiryat Bialik, Israel, and is a researcher and professor in biomechanics at the Technion in Haifa, he said he “left my heart in Pittsburgh,” where, from 2002 to 2008, he was involved in cutting-edge research in medical robotics.
After receiving his PhD at Technion, Wolf was involved in work at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine, the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, and the Institute for Computer Assisted Orthopedic Surgery at West Penn Hospital.
He is now the founding director of the Biorobotics and Biomechanics Laboratory at the Technion Faculty of Mechanical Engineering.
He also serves as director of Technion’s FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) outreach project, which encourages youth to study and pursue careers in engineering, science, and technology.
When he visits Abrams Hebrew Academy in Yardley, Pa., on Jan. 10, the message he will bring students at the Jewish day school and community members — along with his robotic snake — is that “if we don’t attract…students to learn about math and physics, we are not going to have enough engineers and scientists in the future.”
If youngsters choose to study science and engineering, Wolf said, they will be able to invent new things and serve humanity.”
Since last January, Abrams and Technion have been collaborating on a science program to help overcome what they call “the critical shortage of individuals pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM. Together they are creating a long-distance link between Abrams middle-school students and science teachers at Technion.
Wolf discussed his work and accomplishments with NJ Jewish News in a telephone interview from his office at the Technion.
NJJN: Why create a robotic snake?
Wolf: The thing about snakes is they crawl and wrap around obstacles and ease themselves into structures without causing too much damage. Then, we thought, what if we make them small enough to send them into the human body to actually perform surgery. We have performed heart surgery, driving the snake around the heart while it is still beating. You can make a very small hole in the body, about one-third of an inch, and drive the snake through this entry port. It can move around obstacles like organs and reach remote locations. Then through the snake you can introduce tools used in surgery, drive the snake out, and send the person home the same day. It is now in the process of getting licensed and approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
NJJN: You met with President Barack Obama and showed him the robotic snake when he visited the Technion in March. What was your meeting like?
Wolf: I think he is a charming person. I spent seven or eight minutes with him. He asked very intelligent questions. He liked the snake, but he said his wife Michelle doesn’t like snakes.
NJJN: What are you working on now?
Wolf: I am now involved in biomechanics, dealing with arthritis and how we walk. We have developed special machinery to help people cope with the disease and even prevent surgery, and in post-surgery get much better results in rehabilitation. When we learn to walk we develop a code in our brains. We don’t think about walking. But through the years our anatomy changes. People start to suffer from pain in their knees or hips. We use special types of shoes with biomedical elements in their soles to control the mechanics of the way you walk so that there is no pain anymore. You will learn to walk in a way that is appropriate to the condition of your joints.
NJJN: In addition to urging them to study math and science, what is your advice to students?
Wolf: They should look around. Everything is interesting. Ask questions. Explore what you see. Be creative. Don’t be afraid to try and fail. Failure is part of success. Every failure will build you. Be active. And think.