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Profiles Of Scientists And Engineers: Mechanical Engineer

8 minutes

What I put my effort toward, as an engineer, is a powered rope-climbing device used for search and rescue operations. It allows a person to much more quickly and easily execute high-angle rescue scenarios, such as what fire fighters might perform.

(Nate Ball) My name is Nate Ball and I'm a mechanical engineer. My job as an engineer is to use my world knowledge and my knowledge about how things work to solve problems to help people.

(female narrator) As a mechanical engineer, Nate pushes technology to its limits using his knowledge of motion and energy to develop many mechanical devices, including a new vaccine delivery system called the VacPac. There are 4.3 million deaths caused every year by vaccine-preventable diseases. The challenge in getting vaccines to appropriate places in Third World countries is being able to keep them cool. Vaccines have to stay around four degrees Celsius in order to stay usable. And to get vaccines at that temperature into really rural areas with spotty electrical power is a big challenge.

(Ball) This device is a portable vaccine refrigeration backpack. It's a refrigerator you wear that allows you to take up to 1200 vaccine doses into a rural area lacking normal power. In a situation with major infrastructure devastation, like in a huge earthquake in Third World countries, this device has potential to make a difference because you can take massive doses of antibiotics and medicines into rural areas without power in order to be able to deliver medical help.

(narrator) Nate spends much time refining his designs, building models and prototypes to get products ready for manufacturing. We're looking at a 3D model of an early VacPac actually created inside the computer. In engineering, when building a complicated system, it's useful to build a model to visualize how the parts will actually attach together.

(narrator) Nate shares his engineering passion by mentoring others.

He even hosts a TV show for PBS called Design Squad.

(Ball) On the show, I mentor teams of young engineers, introducing challenges to them, as week-to-week, they split into teams and hear from clients, like real engineers do. The client says, "Design squads, build this," "Solve this problem." You build me the fastest dragster possible.

(Ball) The kids on the show actually do it. We got our forks in front.

(man) We'll have a six-foot rebar coil, like a tornado.

(narrator) When not inspiring future engineers, Nate can be found helping athletes reach new heights.

(Ball) I coach the MIT pole vaulters. I'm a pole vaulter myself. I have been since sixth grade.

(Ball) Let's go, Emily! It's cool, because coming to pole vaulting from an engineering perspective, as a coach, I get to describe physically what's going on in a different way than other pole vault coaches. Here's the box. You want the bar away from it, so when peaking, you won't fall into that steel encased in concrete.

(Ball) Engineering allows you to solve many problems, ranging from building cool things like dragsters and, you know, bridges and skyscrapers to solving interesting complicated problems like how to get a drug directly into your skin without the use of a needle.

(narrator) When a natural disaster or fast moving epidemic strikes, a needle-free injection device could save countless lives. A project I'm working on is a controllable version of that needle-free drug transport. This device, instead of using a gas-powered piston to fire in, actually uses a controllable actuator. You can decrease the power in real-time to inject an elderly person or child, and increase power for a tough-skinned person. The advantage of that is huge, because you can imagine having a delivery gun with a large vaccine vial, line up many people, adressing each person's arm, and shoot right down the line, inoculating many people very quickly.

(narrator) Nate's a busy guy, even during his down time.

(Ball) The physicality of getting out and moving with your body is a nice break from your brain, and being somewhat in shape, physically, helps us work harder, mentally, during the on hours. We enjoy getting out there, working hard, flipping upside down, and applying a physics understanding to what's happening in the air as we run and flip through the air off of obstacles and whatnot. Engineering, by no means, is all fun and games either. It's never going to be a straight-through process where you arrive, see the problem, thinking, "I got this." You may not even have group consensus in solving the problem. You're working with limited resources and time, so persistence is important to being an engineer. I love solving problems and that engineering is a creative job. There's a whole world of things to invent and create and work with people on. You're never bored as an engineer. A couple of my fellow engineer colleagues are working on a cool project called the Tour Bot. It's a robot designed to rove around the halls of MIT giving tours.

(Tour Bot) Welcome to MIT. While we're building a system that's giving tours of the MIT campus, we're not necessarily only trying to discover how to build systems to give tours, we're trying to see how to get robots to interact with people, serve people, and interact, and change people's lives.

(Ball) Additionally, the navigation systems they put on the robot are state-of-the-art.

(male student) We use many sensors: laser rangefinders that we use to find obstacles around us, a camera that looks at the ceiling to read markers we placed to tell the robot where it is.

(Ball) Those sensors could have implications for robots in other scenarios like hospitals, work sites, or museums, libraries, who knows.

(Robot) Hi, Patrick.

I will be your friend today. [all laugh]

(Ball) What I'm working on here is a preliminary design for an arm to add to a robot like the Tour Bot to make it pick up an object off the ground or open a door, if you want it to. It's a multi-degree-of-freedom system, which means like the human arm, it's got many different joints that can function in several different ways.

(narrator) Nate also finds time to engineer some jazz improvisations.

(Ball) It incorporates many things I like about engineering, in that it's kind of a free-flow process of coming up with new ideas, but it's live on the keyboard. It's also a relaxing outlet for me. Engineers can make a very good living. The reason is, the world always has important problems to solve, and the world will always need engineers. Things I love about engineering are that I work with other engineers that are passionate about solving problems and helping people, I get to see my work directly benefit people, I always have reasons to keep learning and applying my new knowledge to new interesting problems. In 10-20 years, or before I die, I'd love to look back and say I've spent that time making people's lives better. That's what I wanna do.

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Nate Ball uses science to develop mechanical devices that help improve life. Some of his designs push technology to its limits, like his portable, refrigerated vaccine backpack.

Media Details

Runtime: 8 minutes

Profiles Of Scientists And Engineers
Episode 1
10 minutes
Grade Level: 9 - 12
Profiles Of Scientists And Engineers
Episode 2
6 minutes
Grade Level: 9 - 12
Profiles Of Scientists And Engineers
Episode 3
7 minutes
Grade Level: 9 - 12
Profiles Of Scientists And Engineers
Episode 4
6 minutes
Grade Level: 9 - 12
Profiles Of Scientists And Engineers
Episode 5
8 minutes
Grade Level: 9 - 12
Profiles Of Scientists And Engineers
Episode 6
6 minutes
Grade Level: 9 - 12
Profiles Of Scientists And Engineers
Episode 7
8 minutes
Grade Level: 9 - 12
Profiles Of Scientists And Engineers
Episode 8
7 minutes
Grade Level: 9 - 12
Profiles Of Scientists And Engineers
Episode 9
8 minutes
Grade Level: 9 - 12
Profiles Of Scientists And Engineers
Episode 10
7 minutes
Grade Level: 9 - 12