Sarah Valentiner of DeKalb plays her violin using the prosthetic designed by Northern Illinois University engineering student, Oleseun Taiwo, of Naperville. (Denise Crosby/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Photo: Denise Crosby
Photo: Denise Crosby

Student creates prosthetic so girl born without hand can master violin

DEKALB, Ill. — Sarah Valentiner and Oleseun Taiwo have figured out a way to make beautiful music together.

And it all comes down to a light-weight nylon/plastic prosthetic that Taiwo, an engineering student from Naperville at Northern Illinois University, designed for Sarah so this delightful 12-year-old born without a right hand can more easily play her violin.

I was fortunate to hear that music, too, when I met with the young duo late last month at NIU, along with Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Federico Sciammarella, who helped his student design this prosthetic from a 3D printer.

“I gave Oleseun the opportunity and the guidance, but this is his design,” said Sciammarella. “I wanted him to be the owner of this project . that’s the only way they learn.”

Valentiner, an eighth-grader at Huntley Middle School in DeKalb, had been playing the violin for about two years with help from a prosthetic provided by the Shriners Club. While it served its purpose, it had limitations, said Sarah’s father David Valentiner, who along with wife Nina Mounts, is a psychology professor at NIU.

So when the couple discovered e-Nable, a global network of volunteer designers who freely share 3D plans for prosthetic hands, they contacted NIU’s College of Engineering and Engineering Technology to see if there was interest in making one for their daughter.

Sciammarella, who NIU officials say is internationally recognized for his work in 3D printing, knew immediately which student he wanted to work on the project. And Taiwo was even quicker to jump on board.

Not only was the 20-year-old Neuqua Valley High School graduate interested in the design aspect of engineering, he told me, “I wanted to go deeper and be able to use design to solve major problems that would have a quick impact.”

What started as a classroom project in May evolved into a passion, as he and Sarah met once a week, talking about the fit, angles, movement and other details they knew would be important if this device was to be pitch perfect.

Both are, indeed, perfectionists, say those who know the pair well. So it’s no wonder there were so many iterations of that original design, including six drafts.

For example, the prosthetic Sarah used on Monday to play a Vivaldi concerto for me weighs about half as much as the original design, so it’s less clunky. Even more satisfying, Taiwo said, was reworking the prosthetic so Sarah does not have to dismantle the bow, which is a big deal, of course, if you are only dealing with one hand.

But this is not just about helping a young girl from DeKalb play better music. Taiwo plans to share the improvements he’s made with e-NABLE so others can benefit.

“When I started in engineering I figured I’d just get my degree and get a job,” said the Naperville student, whose father Temitope Taiwo is deputy director of nuclear engineering at Argonne National Laboratory. And even though he’s still all about finding solutions, he insisted, this project with Sarah “changed me.”

Taiwo not only wants to work in 3D printing when he graduates, his plans are to work with people on designs that make a solid contribution to the world. And that’s music to the ears of NIU Provost Lisa Freeman, who says the university prides itself on the sort of hands-on learning that is at the heart of this “feel-good story.”

That’s particularly important because NIU is home to “so many students in underserved communities,” she added, making it critical “they see the opportunities available to them and the impact of what they are learning” so they feel as if they fit in to the university environment.

“They want to know what the point is,” she said. In the College of Engineering, for example, students need to see “it’s not just about bridges but also about people.”

Still, Taiwo gives equal credit for the prosthetic to his 12-year-old partner. And it’s that synergy between the two, say Sarah’s father and his professor, that has made this collaboration such a pleasure.

As psychologists, Valentiner and Sarah’s mother understand the importance of allowing children, especially those with disabilities, to “see the possibilities in the world” and “take an active role in shaping their own destiny.”

This prosthetic, Sarah insists, has not only boosted her confidence as a violinist, it’s made her, too, want to pursue a future in engineering so she can “make the world a better place.”

And, while Sarah is grateful for the difference it has made in her ability to make beautiful music, she insisted on adding one more important note.

“It wasn’t so much whether it would be a success,” she said with a shy smile, “but the thought behind it that made this so great.”

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