WORCESTER — Here’s what Payton Heiberger remembers about the awful car crash outside Houston nearly two years ago that would forever rearrange her life and forge unbreakable bonds here with students who worked with her to build a miracle:
An out-of-control car careering toward her.
The violent impact on the driver’s side of her vehicle. The terrifying sound of rubber tires screeching across pavement.
Then, an explosion of shattering glass.
“My car caught fire,’' Heiberger, 21, told me the other day via Zoom from her home in Texas. “When I woke up, it was really smoky, and when I looked down at my hand, my thumb was completely gone. It was on the floorboard. And it was on fire.
“One finger was just hanging. And this one was already gone. So, I knew instantly that it was a disaster.’'
The Texas college student met with prosthetics companies, which offered an option she quickly dismissed. No, she didn’t want their homemade cosmetic fingers.
She wanted mobility. She wanted structure. And functionality.
“The prosthesis doctors all told me the same thing: There’s no product or prosthesis out there that will help my situation for the motion of those two fingers,’' she said. “And there’s no products out there that will enhance me in any physical, functional way.
“And they just said, ‘I’m sorry. I can give you a finger that looks like a finger, but that’s about all we can do for you.’’
And that’s how Payton Heiberger came to meet a group of students from Worcester Polytechnic Institute who, with their professor, began building something that didn’t exist: a partial hand prosthetic.
Along the way, they built something else, too: real friendships. Close bonds forged in a laboratory here where a robotic dinosaur named Perry, a $200,000 humanoid, and other emblems tell you that you have not wandered into some staid political Science 101 classroom.
“It felt like fate,’ Heiberger told me. “Everything lined up so perfectly.’'
Fate for Heiberger came in the form of WPI students Mia Buccowich, a biomedical engineering major, Brian Fay, who is majoring in mechanical engineering, and Andy Strauss, who is focused on robotics engineering.
“I had an amazing group of students from WPI who willingly wanted to coordinate with me for their research project, for this prosthetic,’' Heiberger said via a video conference as her old friends looked on. “Working with them in the lab and coordinating with students of my own age has been amazing.
“I love to see how passionate they are about this project. I didn’t want to get my hopes up in the beginning.’'
In the beginning, there was something other than hope: A daunting challenge. A scientific frontier. A singular passion to succeed.
“I didn’t promise anything,’' said Marko Popovic, the WPI professor who was the project’s principal investigator. He’s a native of Serbia whose professional life carried him to the laboratories of both Harvard and the artificial intelligence lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“She could move this tiny piece of bone,’' he said, demonstrating. “We gave her a robotic finger. We built a robotic thumb. She’s thinking about moving her thumb. And she doesn’t have a thumb.
“But she still has this tiny piece of bone that slightly moves under the skin. And we’re able to record these slight movements under the skin and then send a command to the thumb. And the artificial thumb moves. So, basically, she’s now in control.’'
Andy Strauss grew up in Stow, and robotics is his passion. Mia Buccowich was raised outside Philadelphia and fell in love with the WPI campus and its emphasis on project-based learning. Brian Fay is from Acton, where he was a high school swimmer and rower, and is animated by the school’s engineering curriculum.
Before he committed to helping Heiberger, Popovich wanted to consult his students. To take a measure of their commitment. Their passion. Their willingness to devote long hours to helping a young woman who would soon become a close friend.
“And he said, ‘Are you interested in possibly creating a prosthetic for this person?’ ’’ Buccowich recalled. “And prosthetics — that’s what I want to do with my life. So, I got that e-mail and I was like: Of course, I want to do this. This is an amazing opportunity. And honestly there was not really a moment when I didn’t think it was possible.’'
Not impossible. But not easy either.
“Some would say a thumb is what makes you human,’' Strauss said. “Opposable thumbs.”
“It’s kind of surprising how few artificial thumbs there are out there,’' Buccowich said. “You look it up and you really can’t find any.’'
“And the reason for that,’' said Strauss, “is because thumbs are super complicated. Fortunately, for this project, Peyton still has her metacarpal.’'
The project moved from the theoretical to real life when Heiberger first visited the team here in December — a trip she repeated in few weeks ago, when she tried on prototypes as the team was at work on a newer, fourth version.
She stayed in a student’s apartment. She and her new WPI friends would work 15-hour days, striving for perfection and, along the way, forging friendships.
“From my experience working in the prosthetic field, it rarely happens that you know the person you’re building something for,’' Popovic told me. “This is quite amazing because they’re similar ages. So, it was very natural for them to create this bonding. And, suddenly, Payton the patient became Payton the friend.
“So, now, Payton is also part of the research team even though they were creating this device for her. It’s very impressive.’'
Impressive. That’s a good word for it.
The other day as I watched these laser-focused students talk about their work — its complexity, its urgency, the live-changing nature of it all — it became clear that over time the lines between the research subject and researchers had melted away.
They discovered a clear motivation for revision and success.
“Every time I’ve talked about this project with other professors,’' Strauss said, “trying to get their advice, when I tell them we’re doing something for a human patient, they’re like, ‘Oh, God! That’s serious pressure because it’s not like a project like this can fail.’
“At the end of this, we need to have a working prosthetic that does what we intended it to do.’'
That’s what Heiberger, a pre-med student at the University of Houston, wants, too.
Her new friends plan to finish their portion of the project by the end of the month. Then they’ll turn over the work of final adjustments to a newly configured team.
The old team, however, will act as consultants to that new team, college students who will have a lot to live up to.
“Working with them and being with them has shown me so much progress and hope,’' Heiberger told me. “They’re all so motivated and kind and driven. Not just for the project, though. But for me.
“And that’s what really was the game-changer. They made it very personal. Even though it’s for school.’'
You don’t find lessons like that one in most college classrooms.
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.