Hsiao-Wecksler finds humor and higher purpose beyond cancer diagnosis

By Julia Park


This Halloween, MechSE’s Grayce Wicall Gauthier Professor Elizabeth Hsiao-Wecksler decided to make the most of her chemotherapy-induced baldness. Dressed as the character Aang, from Nickelodeon’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” she humored the students in her research group by posing atop their famed ball-based (ballbot) robotic wheelchair.  They also “trick-or-treated” through Lu MEB that day, sharing Halloween candy with MechSE students and staff.

Professor Elizabeth Hsiao-Wecksler sits on her team's ballbot wheelchair device.
Hsiao-Wecksler in her Halloween costume as Aang, on her "air scooter" aka the PURE ballbot. 

Hsiao-Wecksler was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer in August and since then her weeks have been filled with chemotherapy and immunotherapy treatments – while continuing to lead her student researchers on the funded projects in her Human Dynamics and Controls Laboratory.

Aang and his futuristic air scooter had been a major inspiration several years ago for Hsiao-Wecksler and her research team’s development of the Personalized Unique Rolling Experience (PURE) assisted mobility device – which she felt made the costume even more fitting.

“My prognosis is very good, since the cancer was caught early,” said Hsiao-Wecksler. “But over the past few months, just talking about it more, I have learned that one in four people will get cancer of some kind and one in eight women will get breast cancer. I realized that there are likely so many other people around me, possibly Grainger or MechSE faculty, who have gone through this, that I wanted to speak openly about it – to remove the stigma around talking about cancer.”

Hsiao-Wecksler said Department Head Tony Jacobi and the department have been very supportive of her necessary time away from work, with a teaching release and reduction in service activities. Although she was scheduled to teach Mechanical Design I (ME 370) this semester alongside Assistant Professor Justin Yim – his first time teaching the course – Teaching Assistant and Adjunct Lecturer Jorge Correa graciously stepped in to help, just days before the first day of classes.

“Liz is a great mentor and the summer preparation we did together laid a strong foundation for Jorge and me to run the course. I am also grateful to Jorge for dauntlessly leaping in to teach the class with barely a business day of notice before the first lecture. I am very glad that Liz’s cancer was caught in the early stages and I wish her the best in her treatment and recovery.”

Assistant Professor Justin Yim

“ME 370 has a really rich curriculum, and Justin and I had planned everything over the summer, but teaching a course for the first time is always challenging. Justin and Jorge have done a wonderful job teaching guiding the students to develop successful design solutions,” she said.

As for the ballbot, Hsiao-Wecksler and the research team – which includes numerous faculty, graduate researchers and undergraduate students from across campus – continue to develop their design as a mobility device, and are currently pursuing grants through the National Science Foundation’s Partnerships for Industry program as well as from other agencies. They’re also collaborating on ways to utilize the technology for manufacturing, construction, as well as a potential service robot.

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This story was published November 10, 2023.