Patrick’s passion is to help physically disabled

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Shawanee’ Patrick isn’t in it for the glory or a paycheck. The Wilmer, Texas, native is currently working toward her Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at Texas A&M University, and while she doesn’t have her future career mapped out just yet, one thing is for sure — she wants to make a difference in the lives of people with disabilities.

Growing up in the countryside, some of Patrick’s fondest memories involve her grandmother — a woman whose disability never kept her from playing hide-and-seek and spoiling her granddaughters with popsicles and sweet tea.  A brain aneurism decades before left her unable to walk and speak, but through sheer determination and a lot of physical therapy, Elizabeth Williams found a way to regain some of her mobility and speech. She moved a little slower, but she never stopped moving.

“It made me have an appreciation and to not think differently of people who have physical disabilities,” Patrick said. “It also made me want to help people who have those disabilities.”

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Patrick received her bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering from Texas A&M in 2012. That same year, she began working toward her master’s degree, completing her thesis project — designing and analyzing a robotic, prosthetic foot — in 2016.

Now, Patrick is working on her doctorate and the development of an exoskeleton device that could help paraplegics walk.

Matthew Zurcher at Central Texas Orthotics and Prosthetics approached Patrick and asked her to assist Dr. Kelly Lobb, medical director of St. Joseph’s Rehabilitation Center inpatient and outpatient physical therapy programs, with a new and improved device. Patrick readily agreed.

The exoskeleton device is still in the early design phase, but would allow a paraplegic to move in an upright position, using wheels for motion and one arm to control movements. This device could help someone with paralysis increase bone density and muscle mass, in turn decreasing the risk of other health problems arising as a result of immobility. 

The future

When many children think of an engineer or a scientist, a certain picture comes to mind, Patrick said. Oftentimes, that image is of a white male in a lab coat.

Patrick, however, thinks of her mother Glorida Kennedy. 

Kennedy, was the first female African-American engineer to work for AT&T Teletype in 1988. She pushed her three daughters to achieve the best grades they could, and to always work their hardest. When Patrick asked for chemistry sets and books for Christmas, her mother always came through.

As an adult, Patrick now understands the importance of children seeing someone who looks like them achieving success in a field they themselves might like to pursue.

Kennedy is now a principal at a primarily African-American elementary school in Dallas and .she likes to show her students pictures of her daughter working on robots. 

“These kids are talking about how they want to be an engineer and go to Texas A&M, cause they just never saw it as an option,” Patrick said. “You never realize how important images are.”

Patrick and her mother would like to team up to show K-12 students that anyone can be an engineer, and to encourage them to pursue their passions.

“I always tell kids ‘You can do anything, you can be anything,’” she said. “But it’s easier to believe when you can see it.”

In her free time, Patrick assists with activities hosted by the Access and Inclusion Program in the college of engineering. The program seeks to increase the diversity of engineering students by recruiting, retaining and developing successful students from underrepresented populations. She is also a member of the National Society of Black Engineers. 

Patrick said it’s important to encourage children to be themselves.

“Anything that you’re passionate about is not small,” she said. “I’m not necessarily trying to get everybody to be an engineer, but I want everybody to see it as an option and do what it is that they’re passionate about and not think they are constrained to something just because they don’t see someone like them doing it.

“You can be the first. Somebody had to be the first, and there’s no harm in being the first in whatever it is.”