This summer I had the privilege of participating in the 10-week CSNE Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program as a UW Fellow. I joined 10 other “REUs” from around the country and eight Seattle-area high school students who were participating in the CSNE’s Young Scholars Program. Like me, they were all excited about getting involved in neural engineering research.
Over the course of my research experience project, I learned some C++ programming language, created customized 3D-printed parts, and met many interesting and enthusiastic people.
In addition to working in a neural engineering laboratory setting full-time, which I detail below, I also attended weekly lectures and a series of seminars with the other interns. The lectures were designed to help us improve our understanding of neural engineering, with topics as diverse as the umbrella of subjects within neural engineering and the kinds of careers available to neural engineers. Thanks to one such lecture by Dr. Sara Goering, I am now participating in a journal club that meets to discuss articles on the neuroethics surrounding work like that done at the Center. The seminars, meanwhile, were designed to improve our ability to communicate in a scientific context. For me, the highlight of these classes was a chance to make, taste-test and write about homemade ice-cream for a mock scientific journal article. These efforts culminated in presentations at the CSNE and the UW Undergraduate Research Symposium summer poster session.
I worked in the lab of Dr. Chet Moritz, whose work focuses on improving recovery after spinal cord injury. In the past, the Moritz Lab has explored electrophysiological interventions to stimulate the brain or spinal cord after injury. I was mentored by David Bjanes, an electrical engineering graduate student, who helped me execute a project to adapt a high-precision haptic interface device for use with animal training. Haptic devices are tools that allow physical interaction with virtual objects or events -- you’ve experienced haptics if you’ve ever felt a video game controller vibrate in response to something happening in the game.
The haptic device I worked with, called the Phantom, was a little more complex than that. This little robot creates virtual models of objects and simulates the forces that a user would feel when interacting with them by moving the Phantom’s arm. The experience is very cool, if a little eerie; your sense of touch insists that you’re pushing up against an object, while your sense of sight insists there’s nothing there but air.
The idea behind my project was to lay the foundation for a new rehabilitation and function measurement tool that could provide the lab with precise data about an animal’s movements in 3D, as well as the amount of force produced by the animal. This information could then be used to quantify changes in important measurements of post-injury recovery, such as range of motion, spasticity and strength.
Currently, the Moritz lab is further developing my project into a platform for a wide range of experiments, such as optimizing the way we perform spinal stimulation to evoke movement. In addition, I am using the Phantom as part of my senior thesis project for bioengineering and neurobiology this year here at the UW, using the Phantom to precisely quantify the effectiveness of stimulation as a treatment for spinal cord injury.
I feel that being a part of this program has helped me prepare not only for my graduate education, but also for my later career. My experiences at the CSNE last summer have helped solidify my choice to pursue a career in research, and specifically in neural engineering research. The topics being explored are both interesting and meaningful, and in my experience the people involved are of the highest caliber.