On today’s episode of real life people doing amazing things – we give you , Karl Zelik – Co-founder and Chief scientist at HeroWear – a company pioneering wearable technology for human performance. Karl goes by many titles; Scientist, Educator, Entrepreneur, Engineer, Athlete-however, he recalls not seeing many faces like his occupying these roles in his formative years.
Growing up, he rarely encountered black educators in the schools and colleges he attended, and for most of his life only saw them occasionally represented in the media. He is however thankful to his older brother Daniel J Zelik who became a scientist before him and gave him someone to look up to.
On the topic of role models and media representation of black men in STEM, Zelik found inspiration and encouragement in the movie ‘Black Panther’. According to him, it was a cinematic portrayal of diversity he could not recall ever seeing in his formative years.
Zelik dreams of a world where black faces are increasingly represented and recognized in STEM disciplines, where just like in ‘Wakanda’ real life exo-suits are the norm. Onscreen as well as offscreen, he regards Chadwick Boseman as an advocate and role model for black excellence and hopes to live up to his legacy.
“It was the kind of portrayal in a blockbuster movie that I do not recall seeing, ever. I believe that everyone, particularly the next generation of Black, biracial and other underrepresented science, technology, engineering and math students, will draw inspiration from this portrayal, either consciously or subconsciously.”
Studies and Passion
Karl received his B.S. and M.S. in Biomedical Engineering from Washington University in St. Louis, then his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Michigan. He also conducted postdoctoral research as a Whitaker International Scholar at the Santa Lucia Foundation Rehabilitation Hospital in Rome, Italy.
His studying of Biomechanics allowed him to pursue his passion and interest in the human body’s limitations and possible solutions to them, leading him to work on wearable assistive technologies.
From the looks of it he is well on the path to his dream, right from his undergraduate degree Zelik has blazed a path of black excellence. He received the American Society of Biomechanics Young Scientist Award in 2017, the International Society of Biomechanics Promising Scientist Award in 2017, the Nashville Emerging Leader Award in 2018 and has published over thirty peer reviewed journal papers on biomechanics and assistive technology.
He is currently the Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Vanderbilt University, he also holds secondary positions in biomedical engineering and physical medicine and rehabilitation.
Alongside his teaching roles, he co-directs CREATE – the Center for Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology at Vanderbilt University. This center works towards improving the health and independence of individuals with disabilities and enhancing human performance beyond biological limits.
Wearable Assistive Technology and Its Role in the Future
Having been a track and field athlete (long and triple jumper) in college, he had firsthand experience of the effects of intense continued physical activity on the body. Zelik says ‘he’s sick and tired of bruce wayne and Tony stark being the only one with super suits’ and wants wearable technology to come into the mainstream.
Just as we have smart accessories such as phones and watches, he believes that smart clothing will be the next big thing. Last year his team unveiled the Apex Exosuit, proven to effectively reduce muscle activity in the lower back by 15-45% – the aim of this product is to prevent lower back pain, which at the moment affects sixty to eighty percent of adults.
“Wearables are going to change the way we work and live, and we want to improve safety, health and well-being for everyone. One of the critical challenges moving forward will be to ensure that all wearable technology is developed to serve and protect both women and men.”
Wearable technologies are making their way into the mainstream, especially within the construction industry, with 23% of contractors saying they will adopt wearable technology on site, according to the 2018 Q4 Commercial Construction Index.
It is also estimated that the global exoskeleton market will be worth 8.3 million US dollars by 2025. This is mainly because of the billions of dollars in lost time at work that companies have to incur year after year. It is estimated that over half of all US adults will experience low back pain in their lifetime, costing about 30 billion US dollars in medical expenses and more than 100 billion in lost productivity.
The affected industries are realizing that investing in technologies that prevent such health problems is a better option for their employees and their overall bottom line.
The article containing the experiment and results proving the effectiveness of the exosuit was published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports and led by Karl Zelik and his colleague. When asked what he thinks is his most significant contribution regarding his work, he says it’s the impact on everyday lives for him because that translates into a positive impact on the society as a whole.
“These findings show how exosuits could provide valuable back relief to frontline and essential workers who have been taking a physical toll and supporting all of us throughout this pandemic. What we learned has the potential to shape the biomechanical and industrial standards of future wearable technologies”
This is only the beginning for his team, as they continue to look into more groundbreaking solutions such as bionic limbs for individuals with amputations and exoskeletons for people with disabilities. Zelik also hopes to live up to the legacy of Chadwick Boseman by being an advocate and role model for young people in the STEM disciplines.