by Karin Tanabe
Most likely to succeed, most likely to be incarcerated, most likely to be rich? No, in the fifth grade Corinna Lathan was voted “most likely to go to Mars.” Recalling an obsession with Star Trek in those days, she says, “I wasn’t sure if it was a compliment or not.”
Warfare and children are not regarded as a winning combination, but at Silver Spring’s AnthroTronix, Inc., they get on like a house on fire. Lathan is founder and CEO of the human factors engineering company. She learned early on about the dual applicability of the same technology for soldiers in combat zones and the 5.9 million school-age children with disabilities. AnthroTronix’s first product was an instrumented glove. Children could wear it and lean on a table, activating pressure sensors to control a computer. Soldiers could use it to operate a robot while holding a gun.
Lathan with Cosmo’s Learning Systems. Maybe being voted most likely to go to the Red Planet is the best thing that can happen to a 10-year-old girl. Dr. Lathan was named Maryland's 2002 "Top Innovator of the Year” and is actively involved in educational outreach for women and minorities in science and technology.
“Growing up I always wanted to do things—ice skate, become President, go to the moon, that I still want to do, by the way—but I had no idea what I wanted to be.” While an undergrad at Swarthmore, Lathan majored in both Biopsychology and Mathematics and then went on to MIT to look at the effect of space flight on humans, earning an S.M. in Aeronautics and Astronautics and a Ph.D. in Neuroscience. It was at MIT, where she was often the only woman in her graduate classes, that she studied dual-use technology, developing materials that could be used for a spaceship as well as for prosthetic limbs. “I had to self-identify as a biomedical engineer,” she tells us, “one of the most difficult engineering programs in school and one that is attracting many women.”
Lathan came to Washington to work with the bioengineering program at Catholic University, where she was the only female professor in the engineering department. “A lot of the research I was doing in the lab – looking at advanced computer interfacing for children with disabilities – was needed in the marketplace, not just the lab. That is what inspired me to start a company.
The AnthroTronix team with their cool products.
The DoD also saw the applicability of the technology that Lathan was developing. In 1999, Lathan partnered with Jack Vice, a former marine whom she met through the space systems lab at UMD, and received a grant from the Department of Education and DARPA to develop controllers for tactical mobile robots.
“What really excites me is using technology to solve real problems. People can accomplish tasks despite being in a hostile environment. Be it a soldier, an astronaut, a child – it is all the same technological problem.” The company’s first product targeted towards children with special needs was Cosmo’s Learning Systems
. Released last year, the product allows children to simply lean on buttons to operate a mouse or a joystick. “Our target is an inclusive classroom, children with and without disabilities,” says Lathan. Along with the software and curriculum guide, CosmoBot,
a child friendly interactive robot, is used to help children with developmental delays (eg, autism or cerebral palsy) improve social and cognitive skills. “Children see it as a game rather than something therapeutic though it helps them increase their range of motion and strength.” Lathan and her robot have appeared in Time, Forbes, and the Washington Post. “We formed our subsidiary AT KidSystems
two years ago so we could bring these products to market.”
Lathan and family on holiday in the south of France.
“He followed me to Boston and to Washington,” Lathan says of her husband David Kubalak, an optical engineer for NASA. “We met after my first year of grad school at a conference at the University of Rochester. We stayed in the dorms and he later told me that he checked me in and checked me out.” The couple adopted two children, Lindsey at birth and Elijah at 3 months. Wednesday’s Child recently came to AnthroTronix to film a segment for the NBC program. “It was wonderful,” says Lathan, “but we had to hide the guns.”