The pressure was on for Abdul Gouda and his classmates at George Mason University: not only did their graduation depend on the success of their project, but so did the hopes of impossibly cute 10-year-old girl.
Fifth-grader Isabella Nicola wanted to play the violin, but she was born with no left hand and a severely abbreviated forearm. Her music teacher at Island Creek Elementary in Fairfax County had built her a prosthetic allowing her to move the bow with her left arm and finger the strings with her right — the opposite of how violin is usually taught. But the prosthetic was heavy and he thought there might be a better option. He reached out to Mason, his alma mater.
As it happened, Gouda and his four teammates in the bioengineering department were in the market for a project — students are required to take on a capstone project their senior year, and their initial idea had fallen through.
Still, Gouda admitted some hesitation at the outset.
“It’s sort of a lot of pressure,” he said. “You’ve got this young girl whose counting on you and you’re expected to deliver.”
The team — Gouda, Mona Elkholy, Ella Novoselsky, Racha Salha and Yasser Alhindi — developed multiple prototypes throughout the year. There was a fair amount of literature on similar projects that helped them get a good start, but Isabella’s case is unique to her, and the project included plenty of trial and error.
Isabella communicated easily with the group and provided feedback, especially about the weight. The first came in at 13 ounces; the final version shaved an ounce or two off of that after feedback from Isabella.
The team enlisted a music professor at Mason, Elizabeth Adams, who provided feedback on what Isabella would need to play the violin with some finesse.
On Thursday, Isabella received her final prosthetic, built from a 3-D printer, and hot pink (at her request) with “Isabella’s attachment” emblazoned on the forearm.
She played some scales as she adjusted the fit, and even a few bars of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”
“Oh my gosh, that’s so much better,” Isabella said as she tried out the new prosthetic.
And the team had a surprise for her, a plug-in attachment designed to let her grip a handlebar and ride a bicycle.
“I feel very blessed that I have this amazing group of people,” Isabella said.
Isabella had her heart set on playing music when the school began offering strings lessons in fourth grade.
“I’ve never told her no. I told her we would try. There was no guarantee the school would be able to do an adaptation,” said her mother, Andrea Cabrera. “Through these little miracles, it kept going forward.”
Isabella never had any doubt it would come together.
“I felt right away that I’d be able to play,” she said. “I’ve always had perseverance.”