REU supports undergraduate student research, mentorship and growth

Aleenah Ansari

The CNT’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program provides a comprehensive learning framework for a diverse student group, which includes UW Undergraduate Fellows. The program offers an immersive research experience, as well as classes and events that can help inform students’ future academic and career choices.

A nationwide recruitment brought 13 undergraduate students into this year’s Center for Neurotechnology (CNT) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) cohort. These students spend 10 weeks working on an independent research project in a CNT-affiliated lab on the UW campus.

“We look for students who have an interest in neural engineering and have the background that will help them succeed in the lab,” said Eric Chudler, executive director and education director of the CNT and a research associate professor in the University of Washington (UW) Department of Bioengineering. “We want to get them involved in research and give them experience so they will succeed and move into graduate programs.”

Learning from a community of student researchers

REU students represent schools across the country from Dartmouth College to the University of Maryland as well as the CNT’s partner institutions, the Massachusetts Institute of TechnologySan Diego State UniversitySouthwestern CollegeMorehouse College and Spelman College. Chudler said that students take different approaches to problem-solving that are informed by their academic and cultural backgrounds.

“When you have a diverse group of students together, it helps everyone think about problems in different ways, whether they’re engineers, biologists or computer scientists,” Chudler said. “It allows people to learn different ways of thinking.”

To support REU students in their research process, students attend a weekly scientific communications class and are invited to CNT events like the Practitioner and End-User Roundtable.

UW Undergraduate Fellows also conduct research in CNT-affiliated labs and participate in REU programming alongside REU students, and they can continue their research during the school year. Usman Khan, an undergraduate fellow and rising junior in the UW Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering, was first introduced to the field of neural engineering through the CNT.

“I didn’t know that neurotechnology was so advanced that we could develop brain-computer interfaces or heal spinal cord injuries,” Khan said of the CNT’s work. “Now, I can see that there are a lot of great things we can do with neurotechnology, including applications in the medical field.”

REU research projects range from mapping magnetic fields to developing an artificial neural network that models octopus arm movement patterns based on video footage. Erica Busch, a rising senior at Dartmouth College, is focusing on the latter in the Gire Lab. In her research project, Busch takes a data-driven approach to studying the brain through computational neuroscience.

“This project enables me to take my skill set and apply it to a new question,” Busch said of her work on machine learning. “I’m interested in understanding how brains work differently, and the fundamental underlying principles of how neural computations are made.”

Busch’s research project has increased her interest in comparative neuroscience, which focuses on how the nervous system is used to process information in humans versus animals. The octopus nervous system is an interesting case study because their nervous system is distributed throughout their arms. An octopus’s arms work in parallel to collect massive amounts of information from the environment and make decisions without consulting the brain. Busch said that studying the way that an octopus moves its arms can inform the development of soft-bodied robotics that aren’t constrained by fixed joints.

“I’m thinking more about what general principles of neural systems we can derive from studying invertebrates, especially because it’s easier to study invertebrates in a controlled environment,” Busch said.

Charles Smith, an undergraduate at Morehouse College, developed an interest in neuroscience and medicine from two family connections. His great-grandmother had Alzheimer’s disease, and his grandmother had an aneurysm. For Smith, working in a neural engineering lab was an opportunity to leverage his natural curiosity by doing research that has the potential to improve people’s lives. Long-term, he sees himself pursuing a career that involves both research and patient care.

“I can treat patients all my life, but I’d be treating them with the same method over and over,” Smith said. “If I can contribute to making these existing methods better while still treating people daily, why not?”

Smith’s research project also focuses on neuroscience, but through a bioengineering perspective. His lab, headed by Dr. Rajiv Saigal in the UW Department of Neurological Surgery, strives to create electrodes that promote the regeneration of nerve cells and deliver anti-inflammatory drugs. Smith’s goal is to develop an electrode that will optimize drug delivery so it lasts long enough for the patient’s needs.

Participating in the REU has taught Smith about the importance of being open to new opportunities.

“Take as many opportunities to network and grow academically as you possibly can,” Smith said. “Because I have assisted my mentor in her research, I [could] be an author on a published paper.”

Providing holistic support for creativity, innovation and dialogue

REU students are paired with a mentor who could be a graduate student, post-doc, or principal investigator (PI) in their lab. Mentors can provide context about the lab’s work, help troubleshoot if problems come up, and provide insight about their own experience in graduate school.

Smith has appreciated that his mentor and his PI treat him like a full-fledged member of his lab by supporting him through standard research protocols, and giving him autonomy over his research project.

“My mentor has given me the independence to be a researcher, not just an intern using their lab materials,” Smith said.

In addition to conducting their own projects, REU students could hear about the impact of the CNT’s research by attending the Practitioner and End-User Roundtable, which centers around a conversation with a speaker who has spinal cord injury. REU students were also invited to attend a women’s mentoring lunch with Rosana Risques, an associate professor in the UW Department of Pathology, to learn more about her path to academic and career success and the challenges she’s faced along the way.

Throughout the program, REU students attend a weekly scientific communication class, where they learn how to highlight the impact of their work through academic papers, public speaking and poster presentations. Smith said that effective communication begins with highlighting the “why” behind their work.  

“This program has taught me not to just follow lab protocol, but understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it,” Smith said. “[That way,] you have a holistic understanding of your research.”

In line with the goal of sharing the impact of the CNT’s research with the public, Khan began the ILMTECH project, a podcast series that features interviews with different CNT leaders and researchers. Khan said that this project is a testament to the House of Wisdom, a place where scholars, authors, scientists and writers translated work on philosophical concepts and ideas from Greek to Arabic and Persian.

“This podcast is my modern-day translation project. With the help of CNT professors, I’m translating science and academic topics from complicated language in research articles to a podcast,” Khan said. “My hope is that it spirals into something where people go from listening to creating.”

Supporting the next generation of researchers

The REU program is a helpful stepping stone as students prepare for their next academic or career move, which could include industry, graduate programs, professional school or a career in research. Khan said that conducting research with the CNT has given him a glimpse into the life of a graduate student.

“You need to be independent and focused on your own work,” Khan said. “It’s training for being a grad student, and you learn a lot more when you have your own freedom.”

The program culminates in a symposium where each REU student gives a final oral and poster presentation. Khan sees these presentations as a chance for researchers to start conversations and learn from each other.

“It’s an opportunity to have a greater awareness of the work that exists, and it can lead to greater creativity and more ideas,” Khan said. “The more you engage with new ideas, the better it is for your own creativity and ability to innovate.”

Beyond CNT programming, REU students develop a research community where they can learn from each other.

“I have a group of people to grow with academically and personally, and it’s one of the things I have loved the most about this program,” Smith said.

Smith encourages all REU students, and anyone conducting research, to take advantage of every learning opportunity.

“Go out with friends, volunteer, go to different seminars and talk to different professors and doctors to make those useful contacts,” Smith said. “Get the most you can out of your experience, and make sure you have a group of people you can talk to, academically and personally.”

Listen to Khan’s ILMTECH podcast here. Learn more about the REU program by contacting Eric Chudler.