Leia Serlin hopes to continue making the devices for people who both want and need them, even while applying for dental school.
Leia Serlin was having trouble shopping for high heels to wear to her cousin’s wedding. Serlin, who suffers from an arthritis-based auto-immune disorder, was specifically struggling to find something fashion-forward that would also stabilize her foot and allow her to walk comfortably. “It didn’t exist on the market,” Serlin said.
Serlin, an Albion College senior majoring in biology and planning to go into dentistry, was in the midst of writing her honor’s thesis comparing dentistry and art.
It was then that Serlin came up with an idea: What if there were a device any person could put on their shoe that could stabilize it, arthritis issues or not?
Over the past four months, Serlin has brought that idea to fruition — designing, building and testing a high heel stabilizing device for her reimagined honor’s thesis.
“It really did come out of absolutely nowhere,” Serlin said. “I was doing my other thesis for a couple months before I came up with this, and I was like ‘could I potentially do this as my thesis?’ and my adviser said, ‘Yeah, why not?’”
The goal of Serlin’s thesis is to note if there is increased stability in arthritis and non-arthritis subjects when walking with the device support as compared to those without the support.
Serlin has seen a lot of adversity over the course of the thesis, but it hasn’t deterred her.
She has never created anything like the device before. She has a background in art, specifically sculpture, metalwork and needlepoint, and some background in sewing, but didn’t have much experience using an actual sewing machine.
After weeks spent researching joint stability issues and treatments, Serlin had a plan of picking things apart to resew them to create the device. Many of her materials came from dissecting ankle wraps, ankle braces and brassieres. Then she added stabilization components. Afterward, lace and rhinestones were added for the fashion-forward element.
“There was a lot of research that went into the design,” Serlin said. “Once I had the design done, then I had to actually sew it and make it happen. I ended up making two sizes, using bra extenders for the attachment to expand the ankle as needed.”
Finding a sewing machine was even difficult for Serlin, with everybody buying them to make masks in the midst of the pandemic.
Testing Her Invention
Serlin, though, describes finding test subjects as the toughest part of the project.
“COVID made it really difficult to recruit participants,” she said. “That’s hard anyways, getting people to come to a location to walk around in high heels for 20 minutes, but then you throw in the pandemic. Especially because I’m looking for people with arthritis and that’s a common high-risk category.”
Serlin recruited hard on Facebook, Instagram and even had her mother help make calls. By the end of the recruitment process, Serlin was amazed at how many people ended up volunteering: 31 test subjects.
At one point, Serlin had a flare-up of her auto-immune disease and had to get her IV infusion done in the middle of the testing process. At some points, Serlin was trying to help people put on the devices while wearing a mask, gloves and the IV connection on the back of her hand, but her determination to help herself and, in turn, help others, encouraged her to persist.
The test subjects did a series of walking tests for the device with Serlin measuring the angles of their knees and ankles to see if there was a positive shift in the way they walked.
“Basically, for every person, they shifted 10-20 degrees toward 180 degrees, which was a great thing,” Serlin said. “You can see there is clearly an increase in stability with the attachment for both people with and without arthritis.”
Serlin crafted three different prototypes of the device, settling on the one with a strapping system as the most effective.
“It was the most supportive,” she said. “I tried it on, everybody in my household tried it on, even my dad. I had to test all different sized ankles.”
Serlin has received lots of positive feedback on the device, with some of the testers without arthritis saying they liked the additional stability, and people who have arthritis saying it helped them with their ailment.
Serlin is in the process of finishing her thesis right now, currently having written 22 pages. Once that’s done, she hopes to possibly continue making the devices for people who both want and need them, even while applying for dental school.
“I’ve had a lot of people reaching out asking if they can buy them,” Serlin said. “I’m looking into different avenues for maybe starting a potential business, but it’s not clear yet what I’ll end up doing.”
Her goal is to help people, said Serlin, who spent more than two weeks volunteering at Israel’s Save a Child’s Heart children’s home in 2019.
“That’s all I want to do with my life. I’m going into dentistry; it’s to help people smile. But, for this, it’s a whole other ballgame I never thought I’d be in. As somebody who has these problems, I never expected to be the one helping people walk better.”