Commencement 2019: URI senior’s experience designing prostheses primes him for career in medical device industry

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Corvah Akoiwala
Corvah Akoiwala. Photo by Nora Lewis

KINGSTON, R.I. – April 30, 2019 – Providence resident Corvah Akoiwala has already changed the life of one disabled youth, and now that Akoiwala is preparing to graduate from the University of Rhode Island on May 19, he has his sights set on changing the lives of many more.

While initially planning a career in medicine, he had a change of heart when he entered URI and instead pursued a degree in biomedical engineering, which allowed him to combine his dual interests in medicine and engineering.

“I didn’t really know what to expect in biomedical engineering, so I put my hands into everything I could,” he said. “In one class I made a meter to measure heart rate, in another I worked with biomaterials, and I did a research project to try to find a new way to release drugs into the body to help regenerate bone. And then I got a summer engineering fellowship where we ended up making a prosthetic limb.”

It was the latter project that made the greatest impression. In a collaboration with students at a college in Colombia, Akoiwala and a group of URI students designed and made a prosthetic arm for a 9-year-old Colombian boy who had his left arm amputated as a result of an accident. Akoiwala made the arm and hand with a 3-D printer, then connected it to an Arduino circuit board, and took a design class to learn how to make it both functional and attractive.

When the boy tried it on for the first time when the URI students traveled to Colombia, “he just started smiling,” said Akoiwala. “That was it. He had no words.

“The work was hard, but seeing how happy he was made everything worth it,” he continued. “I was able to change someone’s life for the better, and that was incredibly rewarding, maybe the most rewarding thing ever.”

Akoiwala expanded his knowledge of prosthetics during his senior capstone design class, in which he used augmented reality programs to train new prosthesis users to operate their devices.

But biomedical engineering and prosthetics aren’t his only interests. He also likes to keep up with the latest fashion trends, so he earned a minor in textiles, fashion merchandising and design, which included taking his first sewing class.

“It was fun, though you have to have a lot of patience to sew well,” he said. “But when you see the finished product, it’s definitely worth it.”

He may even combine his interests by designing wearable technologies to cover up prostheses.

In addition to his academics, Akoiwala is a popular DJ who hosts musical events around campus, and he served as treasurer of URI’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers. He was also the president of Brothers on a New Direction, a community service organization that unites young men of color and provides them with mentors.

“We mentored young kids every week at the Providence Boys and Girls Club, visited schools to provide information about going to college, and we hosted groups on campus and gave them tours to show inner city kids that they can be successful at college,” he said.

His fondest memories of his four years at URI will be the friends he made.

“When I came here I didn’t talk to many people, so I found myself wandering around a lot,” said Akoiwala, who is looking for a job in the medical device field. “All of my closest friends I met through the organizations I became involved with. I learned about leadership through a lot of trial and error, and I found a lot of mentors along the way.

“Engineering isn’t easy,” he concluded, “and sometimes you feel the world is against you, but if you find mentors who point you in the right direction, it makes you want to mentor others and convince them to keep at it and persevere. That worked for me.”