Photo of JJ Bivona looking at LOST-Wheel diagram on a computer monitor

Reinventing the Wheel with Open-Source Science

by Michelle Bookless

Faint whirring and clicking noises emit from the 3D printer on the counter behind University of Vermont (UVM) postdoctoral fellow J.J. Bivona, Ph.D.’22, as it moves purposefully from side-to-side and up-and-down. The layers of molten plastic carefully deposited by the initial passes of the machine don’t look like much yet, but the computer monitor on Bivona’s desk hints at the appearance of the finished product. As Bivona moves his computer mouse, a teal object that looks like a small, plastic satellite dish spins on the screen—allowing him to see the object in multiple dimensions and from every angle. The object is a key component of Bivona’s recent invention—a 3D-printable open-source mouse wheel he calls the Lockable Open-Source Training (LOST) Wheel.

Born of Necessity


Like many inventions, the LOST-Wheel was born out of necessity and, jokes Bivona, out of spite. In his final years as a Cellular, Molecular, and Biomedical Sciences graduate student, Bivona worked on a grant-funded project in the laboratory of UVM Larner College of Medicine Professor of Medicine Matthew Poynter, Ph.D. The project, says Poynter, aims to determine the contribution of skeletal muscle contractile muscle cells (myocytes) to local and systemic inflammation and the potential benefits of exercise to diminish overexuberant or protracted inflammation. The work relies heavily on the study of mouse models after they exercise either on rodent treadmills (yes, they make treadmills for rodents) or on small circular machines commonly called mouse wheels.

However, when Bivona investigated purchasing rodent treadmills, he discovered that although they offered all of the functionality he required for his research, they were very costly ($8,500+) and often stressful for the research subjects due to the amount of handling required. In addition, although the commercially available mouse wheels Bivona researched were less expensive ($395+), most didn’t offer all the functions he required— and many were too large to fit into existing cages. Plus, their accompanying software packages (an additional $3,000+) still strained his budget. Frustrated with the price and functions of commercial mouse wheels, Bivona set out to not only create his own, but do so in a reproduceable way that could help other researchers in similar situations.

First, Bivona catalogued all specifications and functions necessary for his current research. He determined that a better device would “Provide data on distance, speed, and time; be accessible in terms of expense, compatible with existing cages, reliability, and ease of operation; be enjoyable to mice; and limit a mouse’s exercise by distance, time of day, and amount of time spent running.” The last component, Bivona says, was particularly tricky to find in more affordable mouse wheels. “Mice love to run and even wild mice will use exercise wheels,” he says, adding, “The problem is, that if you don’t limit them, a mouse might run up to 20 kilometers a day. Scale a mouse gait to a human gait and that’s 150 miles!”


Learning How To Code


Unfortunately, Bivona was missing a key skillset needed to create his dream wheel—education and training in robotics and software engineering. Undeterred, he bought himself a beginner electronics kit called Lost in Space, geared toward teaching adults basic coding and circuiting skills over a 30-day period. After completing the kit, Bivona promptly disassembled it and used its parts and those from mouse wheels already in Poynter’s lab to assemble his first prototype of the LOST-Wheel.

Then, Bivona approached Poynter about his invention.

“After he explained our need to work on developing the LOST-Wheel to accomplish his research, and the benefit to the larger scientific community, I was enthusiastic,” recalls Poynter. “J.J. was demonstrating PhD-level innovation and developing as a scientist more thoroughly than if he were simply conducting experiments prescribed by the specific aims of a research grant.”

Using funding from a National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute Institutional Training Grant, which provides training-related expenses for early career researchers, Bivona purchased additional parts and a low-cost 3D printer. After many revisions, the current version of the LOST-Wheel emerged and Bivona had a decision to make: to patent or not to patent?

Three images from right to left show the first computer diagram of the wheel, the Lost in Space kit Bivona used to teach himself how to code, and another computer model of the assembled wheel.

Breaking the Cycle


"The majority of scientific funding goes to a few labs because they already have the expensive tools and machines necessary to make the latest and greatest technologies and breakthroughs,” says Bivona. In fact, he adds, “Labs in the top 10 percent of funding receive 45 percent of the research project grants, which makes the funding pool for everyone else much smaller.”

By making the LOST-Wheel open-source, Bivona hopes to play a part in interrupting that cycle and, in doing so, help early career researchers like himself contribute meaningfully to current scientific discourse.

In the months since Bivona successfully built the latest version of his LOST-Wheel, a paper about the invention has been published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE. Bivona has created an app to log, store, and analyze data from the wheel, and has created a detailed Github manual and YouTube tutorials so that others can begin to make their own LOST-Wheels.

Recently, Bivona worked with a software engineer to revamp the application and remove the need to manually code the wheel in order to make the instrument even more accessible. Bivona says the project will continue to develop as he and Poynter receive input from fellow researchers.

Bivona's mentor, Poynter, sees the enduring value of an open-source tool.

“The motivation for being a biomedical scientist in an academic setting is to bring new knowledge to an audience who is able to use it to move the field forward and, eventually, contribute to helping humanity,” says Poynter. “Oftentimes, the brightest and most innovative minds are those awaiting to be inspired, or without the resources to enable them to conduct meaningful work. Providing information and materials in an open-source manner may enable such high-potential individuals to make scientific contributions that they may not otherwise be able to do.”

Collage of three photos. From left to right: LOST-Wheel prototypes 1, 2, and 3.

Open-Source Manuals & Tutorials for LOST-Wheel

GitHub Manual

The GitHub manual including the LOST-Wheel logger app, Arduino files, models, setup, license and more can be found athttps://github.com/jjbivona/lostwheel


YouTube Tutorials

Watch YouTube Tutorials created by Bivona below or access the videos on YouTube.

Assembly Tutorial


Programming & App Tutorial


Cage Setup Tutorial