Prosthetic arm designed by undergrads lets girl play violin

FAIRFAX, Va. — The pressure was on for Abdul Gouda and his classmates at George Mason University: Not only did their graduation depend on the success of their project, but so did the hopes of an impossibly cute 10-year-old girl.

Fifth-grader Isabella Nicola wanted to play the violin, but she was born with no left hand and a severely abbreviated forearm. Her music teacher at Island Creek Elementary in Fairfax County had built her a prosthetic allowing her to move the bow with her left arm and finger the strings with her right — the opposite of how violin is usually taught. But the prosthetic was heavy and he thought there may be a better option. He reached out to his alma mater, Mason.

As it happened, Gouda and his four teammates in the bioengineering department were in the market for a project — students are required to take on a capstone project their senior year, and their initial idea had fallen through.

Still, Gouda admitted some hesitation at the outset.

“It’s sort of a lot of pressure,” he said. “You’ve got this young girl who’s counting on you and you’re expected to deliver.”

The team — Gouda, Mona Elkholy, Ella Novoselsky, Racha Salha and Yasser Alhindi — developed multiple prototypes throughout the year. There was a fair amount of literature on similar projects that helped them get a good start, but Isabella’s case is unique to her, and the project included plenty of trial and error.