WASHINGTON, D.C. - In some ways, Catholic University student-athlete Brian Aberle is a college student with whom most can relate. He's started watching The Office in his free time, and admits "there's a lot of cool stuff on YouTube" that can distract him from his studies.
Aberle stands apart from his classmates in other ways, however, namely through his recently approved United States Patent for his method of amplifying the power of cell phone camera lenses. For him, it all comes from a passion for tinkering with things in his free time.
"It starts with an interest or a need, and then I just build things until it's met," Aberle said. "In this case, I had an interest and just kept going until it became a patent!"
There's a reason why the Newton, N.C., native frequently plans out his day on an hour-by-hour basis. On campus, the junior mechanical engineering major also swims and runs track, acts as president of the Solar Technology & Research club, served as a teaching assistant in the 3D printing lab, and even walks the University's first dog, Gus Garvey, in his free time.
"You ever heard of the Dos Equis most interesting man in the world?" said Catholic Swim & Dive head coach Paul Waas. "Well, Brian is that guy for our team."
Aberle's inspiration behind his proudest accomplishment, the U.S. patent, began on a simple walk to get the mail in April, 2016. A dandelion caught his eye and he wanted to take a close-up picture of it, but his phone could not do the trick. After tampering with some laser pointer lenses from the dollar store with his homemade soldering station, Aberle created his first prototype of a lense attachment in twelve hours of work.
The idea is a magnification and lighting attachment for cell phone cameras. In an effort to describe the premise, Aberle explained that a macro lens is placed on top of a phone camera. The macro lens re-allocates the light produced by the phone when taking a picture, further illuminating the target for a magnified image.
An avid photographer in his free time, Aberle realized through his work with optical lenses that an attachment could be very helpful in practice. After developing his prototype, he researched similar patents and saw its potential medical applications.
"The attachment allows you to take very close-up pictures of a person's eyes. You can use that for a fast analysis of eye condition," Aberle said.
This removable lens attachment would give the ability to better measure eye pressure based on the curvature of the eye, an important aspect in the evaluation of patients at risk of glaucoma, for example.
Aberle continued working on the model into college and through his sophomore year. Working with a lawyer helped him lay out the patent's claims and prepare to submit a formal patent application last winter. Then, this November, the idea was officially approved as a U.S. patent. With long-term plans to license the product to companies with similar patents, Aberle notes he's just a junior in college and is proud of what he's accomplished so far.
"I think it would all be worth it to see someone using it at some point," he said. "To think like – 'wow I made that' – that'd be pretty cool."
Catholic's 3D printing lab in the Edward M. Crough Center for Architectural Studies became a favorite spot for Aberle early on during his freshman year. He quickly learned the computer software programs and developed small objects like a Catholic University key chain. The 3D printers allowed him to try new things and further test his attachment idea. Noticing all the time Aberle spent there, an architecture professor encouraged him to work as a lab technician teaching assistant for architecture majors at the lab during that spring semester.
A 3D model of Aberle's face now sits in Waas' office at the DuFour Center. Aberle also mentioned how he recreated the famous Mount Rushmore by replacing the faces of U.S. presidents with himself and three of his best friends.
"I just love building things in my free time," Aberle said. "I'm always tinkering on one thing or another for fun."
One additional hobby that Aberle happily finds time for is walking University President John Garvey's dog, Gus, around campus. Much less time-consuming than his other extracurricular activities, the task is enjoyable for Aberle, but he admits he made quite a first impression at the President's office. He actually wrote a short cover letter and attached his resume in an email inquiring about walking Gus. In his words, if he stated his case well, maybe they'd let him walk the dog. He found out the process wasn't so formal.
"They jokingly said 'oh you're the kid who submitted a resume and cover letter to walk Gus, yeah come on in!'" he laughed.
This upcoming spring, Aberle will study abroad at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in China to continue his engineering courses and gain the perspective of a new culture.
He'd taken extra credits in previous semesters to make the opportunity possible, and although sad to miss swimming and track conference championships, he's excited to take on a new challenge. He'll be back next year to swim the 100 and 200 butterfly events and run the 200 and 400 sprints for his teams. Aberle felt encouraged by his professors to continue seeking new opportunities.
"Brian's a mature, dedicated and capable engineering junior who excels in coursework and on extracurricular engineering projects like 3D printing on campus and advanced fiber optics projects," said Associate Professor Jandro Abot of the mechanical engineering department.
After college, Aberle plans to use his engineering background to continue building cutting-edge technology. His optics work caught the attention of the U.S. Army, which has offered him a summer internship at the Fort Belvoir Night Vision Lab in Fairfax County, Va., to help develop fiber optic laser sensors for detecting rifle scopes from a distance.
Whatever he takes on, Aberle is ready for any project, even if there isn't an answer in plain sight.
"Sometimes, it's just more fun if there's no solution," he said.
Click here to learn more about Aberle's U.S. Patent.