Reinventing the Wheel
OSU engineering students help put young girl on the road again
By Kelly Laine AbramsPublished April 1, 2011
The most unique aspect of Leah O’Keefe is easily overlooked; underneath the shiny black locks of hair and her mischievous 11-year-old smile, you barely notice the difference in her fingers, which have never developed past her first knuckles.
Perhaps that’s because as she whirrs around the O’Keefe household, texting at an astounding rate, preparing after-dinner tea, and stopping only long enough to beat a grown man at foosball, it’s clear she is neither denied nor defined by the rarity of her hands.
In fact, Leah has seldom run into something she could not conquer with ease. That is, until she outgrew her old bicycle.
Once Leah expressed interest in a new bicycle to her mother Bobbi – the ‘big girl’ bike with gears and handlebar brakes – they began to look for a solution to their problem: Leah’s fingers do not extend to a length that allow her to squeeze the stock handlebar brakes that come on an average bicycle. After months of reaching out to local bike shops, friends who build bikes, and overturning every rock she could think of, Bobbi finally stumbled upon a path lit with possibility.
Enter Paul Scudieri and Kyle Russ: two men with an endless supply of problem-solving possibilities. Bobbi was led to these Columbus innovators with an open mind and a thankful heart.
“I don’t know if I had a whole lot of expectations, but I had a whole lot of gratitude,” she said. “I was open to any ideas they had, any alternatives they could think of. But more than anything, I was just really grateful.”
Scudieri, 26, was brought onto Leah’s bike project for his design expertise. He holds an undergraduate degree in Systems Engineering, a master’s degree in Industrial Design and is now working on a PhD in Systems Engineering at the Ohio State University. Russ, 25, holds an undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering and is well on his way to a master’s in Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at OSU. Russ not only offered his notable engineering skills to the project, but also his tangible passion for cycling.
About a year ago, when their advisor Blaine Lilly approached them with the O’Keefe’s predicament, the men immediately accepted the challenge of building a bike that would be safe, comfortable and easy for Leah to utilize.
“We had to get this girl a bike that she could ride,” Scudieri said. “We went into it with goal one: she had to be able to stop the bike. Very quickly we figured out that stability was just as big of an issue.”
Once they pinpointed the barriers they would have to break, the men hit the pavement for some practical observation.
“I had Paul and myself considering all of the motions while we were riding our own bikes,” said Russ. “It wasn’t until I was on a bike, squeezing the brake that I realized the amount of momentum you have carrying your body forward.” They needed to design a braking system that would offer Leah a gradual method of stopping, like at a stop sign, as well as quick braking for unexpected stops.
However the braking system wasn’t the only challenge they had to surmount. They needed Leah.
They cultivated a friendship with Leah before they even approached the bike system, to ensure that she was comfortable with them looking at her hands and even taking molds. A sincere bond was formed and the guys ventured to Leah’s Gahanna home a number of times, often just to hang out.
After months of Play-Doh prototypes and hopeful failures, Paul and Kyle claimed triumph with a confident brake design. They reached out to some of the best bicycle companies in the nation to ask for a little assistance, and were overwhelmed by the responses.
Hayes Disc Brakes donated a hydraulic disc brake system all the way from Wisconsin. SRAM, a bicycle component company out of Chicago, donated the gear shifters, and Giant Bicycles donated the high-quality bike frame.
Josh Hassenzahl, manager of the OSU Systems Engineering machine shop, was a critical supporter, supplying his services and a workspace. Research Alloys right here in Columbus gifted the aluminum required to fabricate the shifters, and the Roll: bike shop on Lane Avenue shared their time, energy and proficiency. The generosity of these companies reveals the nature of the biking community across the country, as well as in Columbus.
Russ remarked that one of the SRAM employees said it best: “Anything we can do to get another person on a bike, we’ll do.”
Leah had been waiting patiently for her bicycle, although her mother says it was never too far from conversation. As 2010 was nearing an end, anticipation for the bike’s arrival was palpable. On Christmas Day, the O’Keefe family began with their normal holiday routine. “Christmas morning was so awesome,” said Bobbi, “Leah had been asking and asking about the bike. I kept telling her I didn’t think it would be ready by Christmas.”
But it was.
Once the presents had been opened and things began to settle down, Bobbi noticed a slight air of disappointment in her daughter’s attitude. So she sent an unsuspecting Leah to grab something from the room where the finished bicycle had been hiding. Excitement filled the house. The thought of an 11-year-old girl finding a bicycle on Christmas morning might sound like a pretty average scenario, but Leah and her custom bicycle are anything but average.
After the completion of such a successful project, the engineers look to their future with renewed inspiration.
“Kyle wants to work for a bike company,” Scudieri said. “And me? I want to not fall off my bike.”