SPUR 2022: Utah NeuroRobotics Lab: Brain-Computer Interfaces and Artificial Intelligence for Assistive and Rehabilitative Robotics

Background

"Losing a limb is like losing a family member, except you are reminded of it every day." - Anonymous Amputee

Most of us have experienced the grief of losing a loved one, and we can understand how emotionally devastating loss can be. But, it's difficult to fully capture how much more debilitating it is to be constantly reminded of your loss by chronic pain, physical disability, and nonautonomy. For individuals suffering from paralysis, paresis, or limb-loss, life is chronic struggle with depression and endurance of life-long neuropathic pain. This is in addition to practical difficulties associated with activities of daily living and potential loss of employment. These challenges often result in long-term use of antidepressants and narcotics, as well as high medical costs associated with anxiety and other psychological struggles. Current treatments are costly and ineffective, leaving millions of people waiting for a better medical solution...

At the Utah NeuroRobotics Lab, we are working to turn science fiction into reality. Inspired by Luke Skywalker's Bionic Arm, we have developed state-of-the-art bionic arms that can restore dexterous control and provide a natural sense of touch. At a higher-level, our lab seeks to augment biological neural networks with artificial neural networks and bionic devices to treat neurological disorders and to further our understanding of neural processing. Working at the intersection of artificial intelligence, robotics, and neuroscience, we are developing biologically-inspired artificial intelligence and brain-machine interfaces to restore and/or enhance human function.

Student Role

We have eight undergraduate students currently working in the lab and dozens of potential projects available. Projects typically fall into the broad categories of: mechanical design, electrical design, software development, machine learning, or human-subjects testing. Previous undergraduate researchers have developed new prosthetics and orthotics, built brain-machine interfaces, analyzed neural and electromyographic data, instantiated machine-learning algorithms, conducted human-subject experiments, presented at conferences, and published scientific papers. We work closely with each student to find an appropriate project that leverages their background skills and provides them training in areas of their interest. Background experience is not required, although having some relevant experience can allow a student to work more independently sooner. A detailed list of available projects can be found at: https://neurorobotics.ece.utah.edu/trainee-projects/

As a member of the Utah NeuroRobotics Lab, you will be responsible for leading your own independent research project. You will be assigned a mentor to help you refine your project goals and your career development plans. You will also be assigned a team of supporting researchers to help you with your research. Included in this team will be additional graduate mentors to help with technical implementation and training, as well as other assistants (e.g., high-school volunteers) to help with day-to-day tasks. With support from your graduate mentor, you will lead weekly project meetings and direct your team to achieve your research goals. Outside of your own independent project, you will also be expected to assist with other student projects and participate in lab social events.

Student Learning Outcomes & Benefits

As a member of the Utah NeuroRobotics Lab, you will be trained in the interdisciplinary field of neurorobotics and can expect to learn fundamental skills in neuroscience, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, biomedical engineering, computer science, and physical medicine & rehabilitation. You will learn to lead a research team, communicate effectively across disciplines, synthesize interdisciplinary ideas, and develop novel neurorobotics applications to treat a variety of different neuromuscular impairments. Specific technical skills will depend on your individual project, but you will be exposed to all of the following to some degree: Computer-aided Design (CAD), 3D-printing, soldering, printed circuit boards (PCBs), electrophysiology, artificial neural networks, deep learning, embedded systems and programming in MATLAB, LabVIEW, Arduino and Python. All students will also receive training in human-subjects research and responsible conduct of research.

Working in the Utah NeuroRobotics Lab is a great way to supplement your learning, boost your resume, and explore career options. To date, we have had 21 undergraduate students in the lab, who have collectively achieved 15 co-author abstracts, 18 first-author abstracts, 20 competitive fellowships, 7 competitive research awards, 8 co-author manuscripts, and 1 first-author manuscript! You can learn more about our current undergraduate students and our alumni, as well as their contributions, on our website.

Jacob George
Assistant Professor

Electrical & Computer Engineering
College of Engineering
Neuroscience Program

My mentoring philosophy starts with helping students identify their interests and career goals by providing them with opportunities to explore a variety of different projects. All of the projects are substantive and publishable, but they are also secondary to the lab’s primarily objective; the students are told early on that we’d love for them to succeed, but also that failure is possible and is acceptable. I work closely with students to guide their learning at a broad level (why is this project important?) to a more specific/technical level (how will you accomplish that step?). A strong understanding of the student’s interests, strengths and weaknesses allows me to develop a personalized plan built around SMART goals, regular meetings, and student reflection.

Specific mentoring activities include:

  • Weekly project meetings
  • Identifying broader next steps
  • Implementing technical solutions
  • Writing a scientific abstract
  • Preparing a scientific presentation
  • Biweekly career development meetings
  • Reviewing Individual Development Plans
  • Identifying career opportunities
  • Resume review
  • Mock interviews

Mentorship is a symbiotic relationship between the mentor and mentee that fosters new discovery. Undergraduates provide critical research that pushes the lab forward, often in unexpected directions. And my role as a mentor is to provide undergraduates the technical experience and confidence necessary to achieve their goals – regardless of differences in career path, experience, background or identity. Altogether, my mentorship philosophy seeks to promote the next generation of strong, independent scientists from diverse backgrounds that will strive to make the world a better place.