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Isabella Nicola Poses for Photo

A senior design team of bioengineering students from Mason's Volgeneau School of Engineering met Isabella Nicola the day before Thanksgiving in 2016. Creating a prosthetic arm to help her play the violin became their senior capstone project.

Mason Engineering Students Build Arm for Aspiring Violinist

Isabella Nicola, who turns 11 on May 6, tentatively pulled the bow across the strings of her violin. The sound was as strong as her smile, and applause filled the room at George Mason University’s Long and Kimmy Nguyen Engineering Building.

It was the first time Isabella, born without a left hand and with only partial bone from her left elbow to her wrist, had played using the prosthetic prototype created by a senior design team of five Mason bioengineering majors who witnessed the impromptu concert.

The prosthetic is hot pink, one of Isabella’s favorite colors, and fashioned in three sections with the bow attached at the end. The 12-ounce device, made of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, was produced using a 3-D printer and is connected by straps to allow freedom of movement.

It took Isabella a few tries to get the hang of placing the bow on the strings, but once comfortable, she played simple scales, then wowed with a version of Beethoven’s Ode To Joy.

“I’m just very happy to see it,” says design team member Racha Salha. “I would never believe we would get such a result.”
“Extremely overwhelming,” says Isabella’s mother, Andrea Cabrera. “I want to cry because of how lucky I am that they took over this project.”

“One of the draws of bioengineering is helping people. As a department, our projects are evolving toward that. It’s definitely something we are trying to achieve.”

— Dr. Wilsaan Joiner

Isabella, a fifth grader at Island Creek Elementary School in Alexandria, Virginia, has been learning to play the violin for a year. But she rests the instrument on her right shoulder (instead of the usual left) so her right hand can finger the strings, which, thanks to a local music shop, were restrung for left-handed bowing.

She had been using s simple prosthetic constructed from PVC pipe by Mason alumnus Matthew Baldwin, the string director at Island Creek.

“It wasn’t great,” says Baldwin, who has a degree in music education from Mason. “I didn’t have the knowledge to take it to the next level, but I knew I could reach out to George Mason University.”

The design team met Isabella the day before Thanksgiving in 2016. Creating the prosthetic became their senior capstone project, but it also became a duty.

“Seeing her smile, our feeling was we really want to help her,” says team member Yasser Alhindi. “Immediately, we said, ‘This is our Thanksgiving miracle.’ ”

In addition to Alhindi and Salha, the design team consists of Mona Elkholy, Abdelrahman Gouda, and Ella Novoselsky. The team instructor is Laurence Bray, associate chair of the Bioengineering Department. Faculty mentors are Mason bioengineering professors Wilsaan Joiner and Vasiliki Ikonomidou.

“It’s really exciting,” says Novoselsky. “This really shows me how applying your knowledge will affect people directly.”