Peter Pidcoe main
When they get around to making a television series that melds MacGyver with Bill Nye the Science Guy, Peter Pidcoe could easily serve as the model.
He’s a research scientist and instructor at Virginia Commonwealth University with doctorates in physical therapy and engineering. The MacGyver part of his skill set is evident in his innate creativity at crafting incredible gadgets from everyday objects. He brings Bill Nye to mind in his ability to teach and inspire others.
“Pete's unique combination of talents and interests is not typical,” says Mike Madigan, a professor in biomedical engineering at Texas A&M and a former student of Pidcoe’s. “He is an engineer at heart who loves to design, build and tinker, who also happens to be an outstanding teacher and practicing physical therapist. If you accidentally fell and broke your grandma's vintage wooden record player, he could repair the circuitry of the player, rebuild the wooden box, then turn around and diagnose and treat the knee pain you experienced after bumping your knee when you fell.”
The facets of Pidcoe’s science come together in the Engineering and Biometrics Laboratory (he’s the director) in the basement of VCU’s Art Deco treasure, the West Hospital. The lab is an extension of his various interests, serving both engineering and physical therapy students working on projects with real-world applications. To a casual visitor, the lab could be perceived as organized chaos, and that’s just fine with Pidcoe. “I thrive on this, everything going at once, everything being different,” he says.
On a recent visit, a 3-D printer that looks like a mutated popcorn machine on steroids was noisily at work, slowly (as in 25 to 30 hours) transforming a strand of plastic into the shell for a prototype of a device called the Self-Initiated Prone Progressive Crawler.
The crawler is akin to a motorized skateboard and is designed to help infants with neuromuscular disorders to crawl about and explore, and it may one day be adapted to help blind children, too. It’s the joint creation of Pidcoe and Thubi Kolobe, a professor in the University of Oklahoma’s Department of Rehabilitation Sciences, and it was featured in September at the Innovation Festival, a Smithsonian Institution celebration of cutting-edge technology.
Nearby is a student, Brook Merritt, refining the crawler’s design by integrating six previous versions of the device into one design. What’s on-screen is a gadget that looks like an inverted iteration of the Starship Enterprise.
Merritt is a Richmond native and a freshman majoring in mechanical engineering. He could go into industry after college, but after working with Pidcoe, he wants to put his talents and training into a career in which he can help people, an amalgam of the medical and mechanical worlds. “The first time I came here, I was unsure what I wanted to do,” he says. “Within the first hours of talking to him and [seeing] the lab, it really helped me clarify what I wanted to do.”
In the room’s center are the actual crawlers, the devices that Merritt is seeking to refine into the latest prototype.
And in the back of the lab, under blackboards filled with equations, a student guides a test subject on how to manipulate a prosthetic hand. Pidcoe’s playfulness is evident in how the hand is being used in the test: It must guide a remote-control car through a homemade obstacle course.
The biometric hand with rubber joints was also crafted on the 3-D printer. The test is fun, but functional: A way to adjust the hand to make its interface function more naturally.
Charts outlining previous experiments are on the opposite wall of this bargain-basement laboratory. The bargain comes from Pidcoe’s penchant to use high-tech tools and hand-me-down objects adapted to fit the project at hand.
Tucked away in the lab is a device that helps people with mobility issues — such as those recovering from strokes — learn to walk again. Pidcoe took a commercial elliptical device and adapted it for a task that usually takes two trained therapists to complete. He says that after undergoing treatment with the device, a stroke patient who would otherwise be unable to cross a street before the light changed to red could walk as fast as anyone.
It cost about $200 to develop each of the prototypes of the crawler that was featured at the Smithsonian event. Off-the-shelf parts were used, and when they were unavailable, they were crafted in the lab with the 3-D printer. Pidcoe cut out the plywood base at his home workshop.
“I always like the idea of building your own. You’re not constrained,” he says.
The device helps children with diseases such as cerebral palsy to move about and explore their environment, a skill crucial to cognitive development. It reinforces behavior that’s already there, but can’t be expressed because of their condition. The child is placed on the crawler and it enables him (or her) to actually move in the direction he wants to go. The therapist or a parent can make it move with a hand control, a smart phone app. If children look in the direction they want to go and start making crawling motions, they can be moved in that direction.
“They start reacting, 'Wow, this is cool,' and then they do it again,” says Pidcoe.
It’s a good development enhancement tool useful for all children. Pidcoe envisions eventually having a device that’s sold for $100 through retail stores. It also could be adapted for use by children who are blind. “They can crawl, but don’t, they don’t know what’s out there,” he says.
Pidcoe grew up in a family that valued making do with what was on hand, but that also instilled in him the core belief that there was no problem that you can’t resolve, that you can’t work out the process to. He was the type of kid who took things apart, but he also put them back together. He learned to fix his own bike, out of necessity.
“You have no money, so you have to make it work,” he says.
His first job out of college (he earned a bachelor’s in environmental resource management in 1979 from Penn State) was in environmental engineering in Chicago. It was going well, but he was bored, so he returned to school, and earned a master’s in bioengineering in 1989, then a doctorate in 1993 from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He earned a bachelor’s in physical therapy in 1997, again from the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois, and then earned his DPT in physical therapy in 2006 from VCU.
In October, Pidcoe received VCU’s annual Billy R. Martin Innovation Award for his works. The
award is named for the late Martin, a former chair of the Department of Pharmacy and Toxicology who was known for his research in addiction and drug abuse and its effect on the brain.
“Pete’s research celebrates the legacy established by Billy Martin and others who create new knowledge and constantly challenge themselves in terms of how that knowledge can be used to benefit society and the world,” Francis Macrina, the school’s vice president for research and innovation, says in a release. “He embodies the pursuit of world-class research and its translation to society to improve the quality of life.”
His peers are just as appreciative of his innovative talents.
When Stacey Dusing was just settling in at VCU as director of its Motor Development Laboratory, she’d talk with Pidcoe, and offhandedly mention something missing from her inventory. The next day, it would be there, crafted overnight by Pidcoe.
“He’s always willing to help other people,” says Dusing, an associate professor in the VCU Department of Physical Therapy, and in the Department of Pediatrics, Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU. “One of the great things about Pete is that he blends two different worlds. That’s a really unique skill set.”