People - May 2005

Scientist wants ideas to collide with need
By Arthur O. Murray

For Phil Sanger, it’s not enough to engineer better products for hurt or handicapped people. The director of Western Carolina University’s Center for Adaptive Devices hopes he can help create jobs. So far, the center’s five students and five professors have built four products.

They made a sling that allows a quadriplegic artist in Cullowhee to paint with a hand that still has some mobility instead of holding the brush with her teeth. More complicated was a power-wheelchair navigational system for a deaf and blind Buncombe County teenager. Ultrasound sensors detect obstacles and alert him with a vibrating signal from circuits taken out of a cell phone. “There’s an opportunity for business in these technology areas, say, in wheelchair technology. We wouldn’t think of moving a company that makes wheelchairs into western North Carolina. But we could bring wheelchairs in and customize them.”

Sanger, 56, grew up in Lubbock, Texas, the son of an engineering professor at Texas Tech University. He got a bachelor’s in physics from St. Louis University in 1970 and two degrees in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin: a master’s in 1972 and a doctorate in 1977. After a stint at Oxford Superconducting Technology in Carteret, N.J., he took charge of developing the giant, powerful magnets that would drive the Supercolliding Super Conductor, being built outside Dallas to explore what happens when protons crash into one another at nearly the speed of light.

Sanger quit just before Congress shut down the $2 billion project in 1993. Critics clamored that it cost too much and had few practical applications. He kept working on the magnets from 1993 to 1996 at Westinghouse Science and Technology Center in Pittsburgh, then became a program manager at the Northrop Grumman Science and Technology Center there. In May 2000, Sanger became a professor and director of the Advanced Manufacturing Center at Cleveland State University.

He came to Cullowhee in July 2004, partly for its mountain scenery. He also likes teaching and using the school to spur the economy. That’s good, because there’s no shortage of projects for the center. “One of our professors in special education has a list a mile long.”