A recent graduate of UCF’s mechanical engineering program was recognized this spring with an honorable mention from the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships Program for his work that combines engineering, health and art to improve people’s lives.

Zachary Whitacre ’21 was selected for the honor from a highly competitive pool of over 12,000 applications nationwide.

Whitacre has spent the past four years with Limbitless Solutions, a non-profit organization based out of UCF that provides 3D-printed, electro-mechanical, prosthetic arms for children with limb loss.

It was here that Whitacre says his passion for engineering and production of prototypes grew and shifted toward a people-first approach.

Whitacre has always wanted to use his position in the engineering field to help, and he found his niche at Limbitless.

“It’s a powerful moment when a child’s face lights up because of their prosthetic,” says Whitacre, who was also a Burnett Honors Scholar. “That’s a moment that can’t be taken away, and my team and I helped make it happen.”

He recalls several weeks of work leading up to the delivery of 10 new arms to children, which became some of his most memorable times with Limbitless. In those days he says he became more aware of his research capabilities and sharpened interdisciplinary communications.

One of the biggest things he says he’s learned was his role in advocacy. Through Limbitless he says he has begun to see life through the lens of those in the limb-difference community, and their needs require more than just prosthetics.

“Advocacy is a responsibility we must all carry,” he says. “It has to be their voices amplified, not just ours heard.”

Whitacre has also worked with projects examining kinetics and locomotor movement in the lab of UCF mechanical and aerospace engineering Assistant Professor Helen Huang. The project monitored patients carrying out various activities on treadmills by using electromyography and electroencephalogram devices that monitor the health of muscles and motor neuron cells and also the electrical activity of the brain. This work allows the researchers to learn more about out how the brain responds to perturbations during locomotor activities.

When the research was halted during the pandemic, Whitacre took the pause in stride by learning new skills. He had the opportunity to help with the creation of an app that uses a phone’s accelerometer to create abstract art with data from movement. He also learned new ways of coding to help design platforms for data collections.

The app has a solid beta version right now and could be used as part of a future research project.

“I was outside of my wheelhouse, but I grew exponentially in new areas I never would have,” he says.

“I have added confidence about the skills I have,” he says. “UCF research opportunities have opened doors for me to grow as a person and a researcher in my field.”

Whitacre is currently on the job market and is interested in a position related to research and development and product development, with a particular interest in medical technologies.

Story by Simone Rousseau, UCF Today