Protecting everyday superheroes

Alumnus Karl Zelik creates an exosuit — wearable technology that helps reduce back strain and injury risk

Washington Magazine 
WashU alumnus Karl Zelik at work in his lab at Vanderbilt University. (Photo: Courtesy Vanderbilt University)
WashU alumnus Karl Zelik at work in his lab at Vanderbilt University. (Photo: Courtesy Vanderbilt University)

Karl Zelik, BSBME ’06, MSBME ’07 (biomedical engineering), associate professor of mechanical engineering, of biomedical engineering and of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Vanderbilt University, grew up learning, through play, about the extraordinary power and the hard limits of the human body. 

“I grew up in a family of four boys,” Zelik says. “And I was very reckless with my body as a kid. I broke a lot of bones and got a lot of stitches. I was always pushing the limits. And I suppose while going to college I discovered that there was a much safer and academic way of doing that through biomedical engineering.” 

The discovery came about while Zelik was an undergraduate, doing research in a cardiac bioelectricity lab (all the while still pushing his body in track, where he competed in the long jump and triple jump). Then after graduating, he worked at a medical device company on the West Coast. 

“I discovered that a lot of the really cool innovation in the cardiac defibrillator space was by these teams of computer scientists who had a lot of leeway to explore new cutting-edge algorithms to improve the device,” Zelik recalls. The same was not true on the mechanical development side, where major changes to a device required it to go back through the regulatory process. 

“I wanted to take what I liked about the medical device area, but see if there was something more mechanically-focused and yet had more freedom to innovate,” he says. “That’s what ultimately drew me over to the side of biomechanics, prosthetics and exoskeletons.” 

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The McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis promotes independent inquiry and education with an emphasis on scientific excellence, innovation and collaboration without boundaries. McKelvey Engineering has top-ranked research and graduate programs across departments, particularly in biomedical engineering, environmental engineering and computing, and has one of the most selective undergraduate programs in the country. With 165 full-time faculty, 1,420 undergraduate students, 1,614 graduate students and 21,000 living alumni, we are working to solve some of society’s greatest challenges; to prepare students to become leaders and innovate throughout their careers; and to be a catalyst of economic development for the St. Louis region and beyond.

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