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June 5, 1999
The Man Behind The New Wheelchair
Dr Vijay Kumar, designer of the 'all-terrain' wheelchair, ambled onto the field of robotics quite by accident. He was a graduate student in mechanical engineering at Ohio State University when he became interested in theoretical "kinematics" or the science of motion.
"I could have just as easily gone the way of physics or mathematics (instead of engineering)," he said, "but (I was) brainwashed to believe that's not a very good career move.
His decision could prove very beneficial to the millions of wheelchair-bound people: it promises to allow users to take on terrain where conventional wheelchairs get bogged down.
Dr Kumar is a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. He has published extensively and has won several awards, including the Ohio State University Presidential Fellowship, the NSF Presidential Young Investigator Award, the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching and the Ferdinand Freudenstein Award for significant contributions to mechanisms and robotics.
Dr Kumar's family is from Tamil Nadu but he lived in Durgapur, West Bengal; Bhilai, Madhya Pradesh; Delhi, and Ranchi, Bihar. He is a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology at Kanpur. When he was 21, he left India to attend Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.
"My teachers, my mentors said that if you have a chance to go to the US, you shouldn't pass it up," he said. "It's a lot easier to work independently here. In India, you need a lot more people to make things happen. Here, there's a reward system in place to make things happen."
The University of Pennsylvania, ranked number 6 by US News and World Report, attracts graduate students and faculty of the highest calibre and Dr Kumar is grateful for the opportunity to work with such brilliant minds. He has been at the university for 11 years and is the acting director of a lab with eight faculty members, five post-doctorates, and thirty graduate students.
The large group includes psychologists, neurologists, computer scientists, electrical engineers and mechanical engineers and has a unique "synergy that's developed by looking at automated systems and natural systems", said Dr Kumar.
Dr Kumar and his wife Maneesha, who is a statistician at the University of Delaware, have two daughters, Priya, 7, and Sonia, 3.
Although Dr Kumar is fluent in Tamil, he confesses that he rarely has the opportunity to speak the language. "My parents come here often and my kids speak English so although I try to talk in Tamil, (English) ends up being the medium of communication," he said.
"I am a very boring person," he said, laughing. Because he commutes 25 miles north and his wife Maneesha commutes 10 to 15 miles south, their social life is "limited to a combination of people that are parents of our kids's friends and to our professional lives," he said.
In his spare time, Dr Kumar enjoys hiking, music, and watching American football and cricket. He is especially fond of the classical South Indian music of Lalgudi Jayaraman and L Subramaniam.
In his professional capacity, Dr Kumar has mentored several graduate students from India. "I never pass up a good Indian student," he said. "They're always well-prepared, motivated, and I really enjoy working with them."
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