Tom Collins – Biomechanical Engineering

Tom Collins works with peope with walking problems, using his engineering skills to help understand the exact nature of their difficulty.

He works at Queen Mary’s Hospital Roehampton, which was set up as a specialist centre for the fitting of artificial limbs after the First World War. It no longer treats servicemen but Roehampton still specialises in work with the rehabilitation of amputees. Most of Tom’s working day is spent in the Gait Laboratory, a big room which appears empty but actually has a range of high tech equipment, such as infrared cameras which digitise the movement of limbs as people walk through it. It’s the same technique that was used to make Gollum so lifelike in the Lord of the Rings films. Tom records and then analyses this data, which is used to monitor peoples’ progress or inform treatment options. “It is intellectually stretching to try and work out what’s wrong and it also requires a great deal of rapport with patients, especially with children who often need encouragement to walk in a straight line.”

Tom’s degree is in engineering but he didn’t want to work on big engineering projects. A tutor suggested engineering in healthcare, which offered many challenges, with lots of involvement with people and the potential to be able to help them, so he joined the clinical scientist training scheme organised by the Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine.

He is involved in research, tracking the progress of amputees as they go through the rehab service at Roehampton, and also some treatment as well. Functional Electrical Stimulation uses carefully placed pads on the skin to deliver brief electrical stimulation to muscles. It’s an effective treatment for people who have ‘dropped foot’ after stroke or injury which prevents them walking properly. “It can make a very big difference” says Tom. “Biomedical engineering has turned out to be a fascinating career with many options for development in the future”.

 

Profile courtesy of Chief Scientific Officer, Department of Health – Professor Sue Hill