Wednesday, December 7, 2016

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Student research advanced the work of a National Science Foundation-funded project to perfect brain-controlled bionics. Student research advanced the work of a National Science Foundation-funded project to perfect brain-controlled bionics.

Revving up Student Research

Former Student Research Symposium winners are studying ways to improve prosthetic limb function.
By Becca Politzer

Imagine a device that could sit on the brain, measure impulses in the motor cortex and relay the information to a prosthetic limb.

Four SDSU alumni are working toward this vision by demonstrating the first building block of this neural chip.

Pieter van Niekerk, Nasim W. Vahidi, Tom McDowell and Scott Frame presented their novel concept to faculty and fellow students at last year’s SDSU Student Research Symposium.

The four were President Award winners at the symposium, and went on to take top prize at the California State University research competition last May in Long Beach.

Frame recalled the excitement of competing.

“Winning the state competition was incredible," he said. "We were presenting next to groups not just from SDSU, but also from universities all over the state, which made the work feel so much more significant. Telling friends and family what we had accomplished felt like one of my greatest achievements."

Life skill

In March, hundreds of SDSU students will compete again in the annual research symposium, which is open to both undergraduates and graduate students.

Close to 400 student researchers are expected to submit entries before the Feb. 1 deadline.

This year's Student Research Symposium will take place March 8 between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., and March 9 between 8 a.m. and 12 p.m., in Love Library.

Emilio Ulloa, psychology professor and chair of the symposium, said the event draws a parallel between what students are doing here at SDSU and “a very important life skill — and that’s the ability to articulate an idea or a result to an audience. It is a skill set they have to develop as professionals to convey their thoughts effectively to others.”

For the SDSU research team, many of the “others” listening to their presentation had familiar faces. Frame said he expected the symposium audience to consist of professors and industry professionals, but instead, “the most influential members of the audience were fellow SDSU researchers and friends and family who had made the trip to support how far we had made it.”

Faculty mentor

Last year’s winning team members credit mechanical engineering professor Sam Kassegne with encouraging them expand their project into a legitimate piece of research.

Their array of electrodes, which they affectionately named Gandalf, could theoretically be placed atop the brain, specifically the motor cortex, of a person with a severed spinal cord or a missing limb, explained van Niekerk. The device, controlled by a chip, would relay signals from the neurons firing in the brain to a robotic limb, enabling it to perform the desired functions.

The team’s research advanced the work of the National Science Foundation-funded Engineering Research Center — a joint endeavor of SDSU, MIT and the University of Washington — whose goal is to perfect brain-controlled bionics.