The mind of Ashley Johnston always seems to be on the go. Whether she is in the classroom, or on the ice with her Union College hockey teammates, or as a coach for a women’s rec team, Johnson never stops.
“Since she was a freshman, she’s always been intellectually curious,” Union coach Claudia Barcomb said. “Her brain is always thinking.”
Johnston is putting her mind, heart and soul into a project that could greatly help children who have lost limbs because of cancer or injury.
The senior mechanical engineering major and Dutchwomen defenseman and co-captain from Burlington, Ontario, is developing an adjustable prosthetic for below the knee for children that will grow with the child.
Last month, she was named a nominee for the Hockey Humanitarian Award. The finalists will be named this month, and the winner will be announced April 11 in Philadelphia on the off day of the NCAA men’s Frozen Four.
The inspiration for working on the adjustable prosthetic is 11-year-old Schenectady resident Kristen Shinebarger, whose mother, Shelly, works at the college as director of student support services. Kristen Shinebarger has Ewings Sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, and has lost a leg to the disease.
She is using a prosthetic, but will need to replace it as she grows because it isn’t adjustable.
“I was talking with Shelly, and she was discussing about how expensive the prosthetics are and how she is going to have to replace her daughter’s prosthetic approximately every two years,” said Johnston, who has a 3.143 grade-point average. “It was really weird to me. I never really thought of outgrowing a prosthetic. I think of a prosthetic as being an extension of your leg. It never really clicked in.
“Once I started endeavoring into it and just how expensive and crazy it was that you’re paying for this prosthetic, it’s like trying to fit a square puzzle piece into a circle. It doesn’t really fit. You’re going through all that pain, all that trouble, and I just couldn’t believe it.”
And that is when Johnston’s mind went to work.
“It gave me the idea of why don’t I create something that, first of all, fits better for a child,” Johnston said, “and is something that they can have for a while. So, I like the idea of having it grow with the child as they grow.”
Johnston schedules about 20 hours a week on the project, but realistically, she said it’s more than that. She gets her homework in the morning for her other classes.
While the process has been rewarding, it has also been frustrating at times. When she feels tired, she finds the strength not only with Kristen Shinebarger, but with an aunt, who is an amputee.
“I was hoping to print something two weeks ago,” Johnston said. “Then I got into some CAD [computer-aided design] problems where pieces weren’t fitting where I wanted to, so I actually had to restart with a completely different design now. It’s more like a backbone of a rollerblade and half of a sphere put together.
“It’s a lot different, but it’s been an amazing process. I’ve learned a lot, especially coming from mechanical engineering. I learned to appreciate the biological side of it. It’s quite amazing that there’s so many factors of the human body that I never thought about.
“There are times when it’s two in the morning and I’m in the lab and I’m like, this is incredible, but at the same time, frustrating. But when I see things working, it means a lot.”
Seeing parents not have to purchase a new prosthetic every couple of years would make Johnston very happy.
“It would be incredibly important,” Johnston said. “There’s so many amazing, novel things being done with prosthetics, but they come at a very expensive cost. You see those robotic arms where they’re actually connected with sensors and you give off neuro images so that you can move. But at the same time, that’s not a realistic prototype or idea for most families.
“When you’re going through such a difficult time, such as losing a part of your body, I think it would be important to make that process even easier.”
Somehow, Johnston finds time away from her research and school work.
She has played 124 career games for the Dutchwomen, and has five goals and 14 assists. This season, she had three goals and three assists in 28 games. All three of her goals have come on the power play.
Johnston works at Messa Rink, helping rink manager Adam Brinker with several projects, including the launching of several hockey clinics and leagues. She is co-head coach of the Learn to Play clinic, which is for youths who are starting to play hockey. She also helps out at the Adult Beginning Hockey Clinic.
Last summer, Johnston founded the Community Ball Hockey League in Schenectady. She managed a range of 10 to 30 players each week. She is involved in Special Olympics, and is also head coach of the Frozen Assets, an adult female hockey team that plays in Troy.
“You make time,” Johnston said. “Freshman year, I adjusted and learned how much time management is important. From there, my social life became when I eat with people.”
Being a Hockey Humanitarian nominee is still overwhelming to Johnston. She is appreciative of it.
“It’s still kind of sinking in,” Johnston said. “Being a nominee is amazing. Being a finalist is a dream. I definitely hope [winning it] is something I can accomplish. All the attention my project is getting will really help it.
“This is a project I definitely want to take on in graduate school as a thesis so I can perfect it. There’s a lot of work to go in one year. Hopefully, I can get as much of a skeleton done of it as possible so I can continue working on it and perfecting it.”