Engineering for Athletes

Photo of Charles Watson and Andy Llaguno working with student-athlete Kevin Lawrence ’20.
Charles Watson (center) and Andy Llaguno (right) work with student-athlete (football) Kevin Lawrence ’20.

URI athletic trainers are working with biomedical engineering students to optimize protective gear, prosthetics, and braces to better support and protect student-athletes.

Can a knee brace be adjusted to provide extra support and help prevent an injury? Can information from helmet sensors help prevent concussions? A research initiative between URI’s College of Engineering and the Department of Athletics will give students an opportunity to answer these questions.

Through the National Science Foundation’s Broader Impacts diversity initiative, URI athletic trainers are working with biomedical engineering students to optimize the practical impact of protective gear, prosthetics, and braces the students are designing. Students—chosen through a competitive process—interact with doctors, chiropractors, podiatrists, sports psychologists, and nutritionists, while getting hands-on experience in URI’s athletic programs. Next summer, the students will present their research findings to the Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society in Berlin, Germany.

Charles Watson ’93, assistant director of minority student recruitment and retention for the College of Engineering, and Andy Llaguno ’92, associate athletic director for health and performance, have spent two years developing the pilot program.

“Engineers are learning how to make new grafts for body parts,” Llaguno said. “We are providing lab space where students can learn to create protective gear, prosthetics, and braces to better support and protect student-athletes. We will give students a chance to observe surgeries—a great opportunity for them to see how doctors use measurements and angles in replacing limbs and joints.” Funding for the initiative will come through the National Science Foundation via URI’s 17-year involvement with the Northeast Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation.

A member of URI’s back-to-back Yankee Conference Championship basketball teams in 1984 and 1985, Watson’s most profound impact at URI has been creating opportunities for minorities in engineering. Since he joined the College of Engineering in 2004, minority enrollment has more than quadrupled. In 2016, the National Society of Black Engineers honored him as its Minority Engineering Program Director of the Year.

Llaguno—a first-generation college grad whose family came to the United States from Cuba—previously served on the National Athletic Trainers’ Association Ethnic Diversity Advisory Committee. “This initiative is going to help URI recruit engineering students,” Llaguno said. “It will help the athletic training staff. It will help the doctors who come through the training room. This is a great networking opportunity all around.”

“The goal here is to be forward-thinking,” Watson said. “As engineers, we want outcomes. With anything we do, we want our students engaged and getting everything they can out of the experiences we provide. This will be a phenomenal initiative, and this is just the start.” •

—Shane Donaldson