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Terence Sanger: A childhood love, a love of kids

A 1981 Westinghouse finalist takes his interests in computer science to the treatment of children with movement disorders
Westinghouse finalist, computer language


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FINALIST YEAR: 1981

 

HIS FINALIST PROJECT: Writing a new computer language

WHAT LED TO THE PROJECT: In the late 1970s, before Apple and IBM scored big with their personal computers, companies such as Altos, Ohio Scientific and others cranked out the first generation of computers small enough to sit on an individual's desk. In particular, the Processor Technology SOL-20 broke ground by being one of the first computers with a built-in keyboard. At that time, some people programmed with a language called APL that often required special keyboards.

Terence Sanger, a student at The Dalton School in New York City who was fascinated by this new technology, decided to write a computer language that would have some of the flexibility of APL but could run on microcomputers, particularly the SOL. He called it "S". "S didn't stand for anything," he says, but there was a language called "B" around that time (whose successor was "C," a language people still use). He thought that "calling things by a single letter might be an interesting-sounding thing to do." He wrote a few games, including a version of Mastermind, submitted them to the 1981 Westinghouse Science Talent Search, and was named a finalist.

THE EFFECT ON HIS CAREER: Sanger went to Harvard to study computer science and applied mathematics, and began working in the Harvard Robotics Laboratory shortly after it was founded in 1983. He did a research project on computer stereo vision (that is, depth perception). In the lab, he saw that there were three potential applications for robots: military, industrial and medical. Of the three, medicine interested him most.

To see whether he'd enjoy going into medicine, he spent time observing an ear, nose and throat surgeon. Sanger was intrigued by the operating room technology. He wasn't sure he'd enjoy the more human aspects of medicine, though. In particular, "I always assumed that I would dislike working with children," Sanger says. After spending a postgrad year taking med school prerequirements, and then enrolling in Harvard Medical School, he did his pediatrics rotation early to get it over with.

But then, he had a revelation: Unlike adults who tend to find illness depressing, "a child with a disease is still playful," he says. Assigned to do daily belly measurements of a four-year-old boy with liver disease, he'd talk and laugh with him. He started to fret about his charges during the days he was gone. "My girlfriend at the time—now my wife—told me that she had never seen me be more protective of my patients," he says. Sanger decided to study pediatric neurology, because "I just fell in love with the kids."

He didn't abandon robotics, though. While earning his medical degree, he also earned a PhD in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also did a short research stint at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., where he worked on theoretical models of motor control and robotics while also interning at the Los Angeles County+U.S.C. Medical Center.

WHAT HE'S DOING NOW: Sanger now combines his love of pediatrics and computer science as one of the few specialists in children's movement disorders in the country. At the Stanford University Medical Center, he treats children with cerebral palsy and—a particular specialty—dystonia, or involuntary muscle contractions. He develops models of motion and studies the feedback loops between the brain and muscles. By better understanding these motion signals and processes, the hope is that physicians and physical therapists might be able to develop better models for teaching children with brain injuries or movement disorders to move well enough to perform basic tasks.

"Dystonia is a devastating neurological disorder, particularly in children whose motor coordination is still developing," says Terry Sejnowski, a professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Sanger is a pioneer in taking computer concepts to the clinic, says Sejnowski, who adds: "He is a persistently exciting researcher."

In return, Sanger is excited by the feeling of accomplishment his work gives him. "You can do a lot for these kids that can actually make them a lot better," he says.

 
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