Author Jan Scheuermann spoke at Saint Francis University to a crowd of more than 200 people at the JFK Student Center about her life as a person with quadriplegia taking part in a groundbreaking UPMC study. The fascinating lecture was hosted by the Literature & Languages department.
The SFU mom has been featured on
60 Minutes for her ability to move robotic limbs—and even fly a plane—using only her mind. She wrote a memoir about her experience entitled The Lighter Side of Being a Lab Rat.
The UPMC Brain-Machine Interface study uses groundbreaking technology to connect a person's neural connections to robotic limbs, providing great promise for amputees and people with paralysis.
"Jan's central message is 'You are more than your body'," said Timothy Bintrim, event organizer and Associate Professor of English in the Literature & Languages department. "She demonstrates this credo—both by the speed with which she trained a robotic arm she named Hector, and (to the surprise of the researchers, a second, left-handed arm she called Lector), from a single implant placed on her left motor cortex, and also by the wit and grace with which she adapted after the study ended."
Jan has deep ties to Saint Francis. Her son, Michael DeLyser (Chemistry and Math), and his wife, Claire Kovach (Sociology), both graduated in 2014. Jan's assistant, Karina Palko, graduated from Saint Francis in 1999 with degrees in Biology and Psychology, and coursework in Physical Therapy.
Jan credits Karina with with keeping her body and mind in condition. "We do the New York Times crossword each day," she says. "We cheat a little by going online, but we get ninety percent on our own."
As the onset of the UPMC study, Jan had two arrays of electrodes implanted on the left motor cortex of her brain. Although the risk was considerable (any infection would be fatal), Jan tolerated the surgery well and quickly mastered the robotic arm she nicknamed Hector, which allowed her to direct limb movement for the first time in ten years.
She rapidly learned to manipulate Hector through ten dimensions of movement with just her thoughts and while entertaining the research team with her relentless enthusiasm and zany wit. Jan recalled the thrill of feeding herself chocolate for the first time in more than a decade—her personal goal when she started.
Since then, she surprised researchers by being able to control a second, left-handed model of the robotic arm from the array placed on her left motor cortex (most people direct limb movement with the opposite side of the brain); she also participated in a DARPA study during which she flew a virtual single engine Cessna and an F-35 strike fighter, directing the flight training software with her thoughts (she had no earlier flight experience).
"The event was extremely successful, particularly because students were able to understand the immense significance of their coursework at Saint Francis University," said Dr. Roxana Cazan, Assistant Professor of Literature & Languages. "Jan demonstrated so clearly the ways in which the intersection between the rigorous scientific acumen and the ability to empathize with another person's experiences that the humanities develops can help the new generations of graduates identify solutions to real problems and change people's lives for the better."
Brennan Thomas, Chair of the Literature & Languages department, described the evening as "wonderful". "There were well over two hundred students and faculty in attendance, and they were enraptured by Jan's speech—her poise, her grace, her charm, and her incredible wit."
Jan's incredible story has been featured in numerous publications, including:
The Washington Post
CBS News 60 Minutes
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette