David Moinina Sengeh, Biomedical Engineer
Pioneering New Prostheses for Better Lives
David Moinina Sengeh is a Renaissance man. He is president of a global charity, a clothing entrepreneur, and a rapper. As a doctoral student at MIT, he is using MRI and 3-D printing to develop the next generation of prosthetic sockets and wearable mechanical interfaces.
Speaking from Boston, he talks about how the civil war in Sierra Leone inspired him to get involved in children's issues; why conventional prostheses are so uncomfortable; and how his organization helped keep children learning during the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa. —Simon Worrall
You grew up during the civil war in Sierra Leone. Take us back to that time and tell us how you became interested in designing prosthetic limbs.
I was born in 1987 in Bo Town, Sierra Leone. The civil war started in 1991 and went on until 2002. I moved to Freetown for secondary school and lived there back and forth. But I don't want to characterize my childhood by the war. My involvement with war-related issues began when I joined the Children's Forum Network, whose goal was to help young children, especially those who were victims of the war.
I wanted to focus on giving opportunities to kids so they would not feel like perpetrators, but to make them understand they were also victims. We worked on a children's version of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
I was also in the Youth Parliament. After the war ended, I became involved with issues faced by amputees. They were being given prostheses, but weren't using them. People said it was because they wanted to beg. But once I spoke to them, I realized it was because they couldn't use them. They were badly designed and uncomfortable. Later, when I began to work on the issue at MIT, I realized it was not just Sierra Leone. Amputees everywhere felt the same discomfort.
You have pioneered a new system for creating prosthetic sockets. Talk about that.
We design prostheses for the individual body. What our research has done is build a specific model for a patient in a predictive way. The most important part of any system is the socket. That's what determines whether you use your leg or not. But the amputee's limb keeps changing. The key is, how do you design something that will always work?
You also head an international organization called GMin (Global Minimum). What's its vision?
Our world is becoming much more digitized and global and in the 21st century, skill sets that provide jobs aren't necessarily about regurgitating math problems. We have a responsibility to provide tools and learning opportunities to contribute to development.
In Sierra Leone, Kenya, and South Africa we have thousands of kids who form teams, submit ideas, and get feedback. A couple of the most talented students are then invited to attend camps for leaders and innovators. The current camp is in Kenya. They get training, feedback on idea prototypes, learn human design thinking and how to give feedback to others—all the things we learn at a place like MIT. Some of the kids are then elevated to global platforms. We have pipelines that bring them to the United World Colleges or to Google. Many have come to MIT.
Sierra Leone has been tragically hit by the Ebola outbreak. Has your organization worked on that?
When Ebola happened, all schools were closed for eight months. We organized what we called "hack at home." Nine hundred kids were on our digital meeting platforms. We gave them design challenges and offered feedback as well as introducing them to people who could support their initiatives. One of the kids is now in the final round of the National Geographic Youth Challenge.
To top that off, you are a fashion maven, with your own design company, Nyali Clothing. Is it something I could wear?
I think so. I love Sierra Leone and I love my culture. It's colorful and exciting. [It's] about how you celebrate that culture through the arts, like batik. I wear it for all the talks that I give.
What inspires you in your work?
Two things. First, doing something that brings positive value into society that I care about. The second is I want to build tools that enable people to do stuff that they could not do before. In my prosthetic work it is about making people comfortable so they can use their prostheses longer and better. My youth innovation work is about enabling young people to think creatively and problem-solve. My fashion work is collaboration with my mom, enabling us and the workers we employ to come up with designs and share their culture in a way they couldn't before.
Last but not least: You are a rapper. Give us a rap to finish.
[Laughs, then starts to rap.] People try to put me in a corner, put me in a circle, but I'll sit in the bubble coz I'm not even a man who can define myself. I come from Sierra Leone, the place that I own, a place I like to show off, the place I represent. 232 is the zip code and now I live in 02139. Ah! It's five degrees outside but at home it's 35 degrees. I'm gonna get my three degrees. I'm the MC who can't stop now. I won't stop now coz I like to break all the boundaries, and break all these walls.
In Their Words
I want to build tools that enable people to do stuff that they could not do before.
David Moinina Sengeh
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