Courtesy of Cornell University

Vanessa Sanchez ’16 landed a spot on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list for her innovations in robotic textiles.

February 11, 2021

Forbes 30 Under 30 Honors Cornell Alumna for Innovations in Wearable Technology

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Joining the distinguished Cornell alumni recognized by Forbes 30 Under 30 is Vanessa Sanchez ’16, a Ph.D. candidate who landed a spot on the prestigious list for her innovations in robotic textiles.

Sanchez started her undergraduate career at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where she grew her early interest in sewing into a passion for fashion and constructing garments. Drawn toward the more technical aspects of clothing design, Sanchez later transferred to Cornell to explore fiber science in the College of Human Ecology where she studied how the chemistry and engineering of materials could transform fashion.  

“[I saw] there were jackets leaking that were supposed to be waterproof, [and] winter coats [that] were too stiff or uncomfortable,” Sanchez said. “I thought about making improvements … through the materials.”

Sanchez’s rich education in fashion and materials science motivated her to pursue a Ph.D. in a Harvard robotics lab, where she harnessed her expertise in apparel design to work with engineers and create wearable technology — a field that includes any wearable device, from smart watches to assistive rehabilitation gloves

After serving as a mentor for the Open Style Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sanchez was inspired by the nonprofit’s mission to improve accessibility in fashion and honed her research focus toward helping people with illnesses or disabilities. 

“Most garments are made for people who are standing, not sitting,” Sanchez said. “A designer may think it’s relatively comfortable, but maybe the sleeve angle is wrong, or another detail that can make a big difference for a sitting patient has been overlooked.” 

At the frontier of assistive wearable technology are soft robots — a type of robotic textile that can interact with and conform to the body. Sanchez specifically works on the textile sensors and smart thermally actuating textiles that allow these robots to sense their environment and move, allowing users to improve their mobility. 

According to Sanchez, different types of wearable robots can use actuators to help users grasp objects, get dressed and support injured parts of their body. However, Sanchez explained that the industry standard for wearable robots is fluidic actuation, in which pressurized fluid is delivered through bulky pumps and valves that can be uncomfortable and obtrusive for wearers. 

To make wearable robots lightweight and comfortable, Sanchez developed an entirely new system to power the motions of actuators. 

“If you think about the populations who need these devices — oftentimes people who are ill or have disabilities — having something that adds more stigma or looks unusual while being carried around isn’t ideal,” Sanchez said. “Recently in soft robotics, we started using phase change to overcome these issues with actuators.” 

Sanchez explained that phase change technology — when the material inside the wearable technology can be heated and cooled to rapidly change shape — in smart thermally actuating textiles can vaporize a few milliliters of liquid into several liters of gas. The robot can then constrain this pressure within pouches to more easily control the garments.

To further improve this technology, Sanchez also developed a pressure-monitoring device called an electronic capacitive sensor, which allows robotic textiles to be electronically controlled and battery operated. This innovation could make wearable technology more fashionable and convenient, according to Sanchez.

Sanchez’s research discoveries have led to multiple publications, presentations and a pending patent –– all of which have culminated in being named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list.

She described this recognition as “awesome and shocking,” and said she felt encouraged by the positive impact her research would have on people in need. 

“People are people. We want to wear cool clothing, and we want to be comfortable,” Sanchez said. “At the end of the day, because someone has a physical disability doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have these things.”