In the 2017/2018 Academic year nearly 100 undergraduate students participated in research as part of the CEMS Undergraduate Research Experience. In this story Sierra McConnell, Jordyn Scism, Kaseya Xia and Lara Weed, all students from the class of '19, share their experiences working as undergraduate researchers.
An algorithm to help predict and maybe even prevent injury in athletes. A computer model – built from scratch – to teach physicians about atrial fibrillation, one of the most common heart conditions in the country. Not only are students in the University of Vermont’s Biomedical Engineering Program engaged in these projects, in many cases they’re driving the conversation forward, looking at problems from new angles and solving them in creative ways.
This dynamic approach to learning is no accident, says UVM Assistant Professor of Electrical and Biomedical Engineering Ryan McGinnis, Ph.D., who helped to design the program and now advises many of its students, in addition to teaching courses. The goal was to offer an undergraduate degree that hinges on real world application.
“I’m always amazed by the creativity students bring to projects,” he says. “They find innovative solutions.”
Created just three years ago, the Biomedical Engineering B.S. program has experienced dramatic growth, from 12 students in its first year to 60 who have declared the major in the most recent incoming class. Students choose from three concentrations: Biosensing and Instrumentation; Cell, Tissue and Organ Biomechanics; and Systems and Network Biology.
From day one through graduation, the focus is on applied learning: In a first-year course titled Introduction to Biomedical Engineering Design, students collaborate with physicians at UVM Medical Center to solve a clinical problem. And for their capstone projects as seniors, students choose from proposals made by physicians who want to work with a biomedical engineering student on a longer-term project, again focused on clinical challenges in need of a solution.
“There are very few places in the U.S. where you have an engineering school and a medical center on the same campus,” says McGinnis. “This leads to unprecedented access to medicine.”
UVM Professor of Medicine Peter Spector, M.D., a cardiologist and researcher at UVM Medical Center, has made it a priority to bring students into his lab, where he focuses on a condition called atrial fibrillation. He feels his work benefits as a result.
“Students bring an enormous amount of enthusiasm,” Spector says. “They make you stop and think things through.”
Spector met Lara Weed ’19, a junior in the Biomedical Engineering Program, after he gave a guest lecture in one of her classes. After her enthusiastic questions generated a conversation about research opportunities, a partnership was formed. She’s now creating a genetic algorithm based on thousands of data points from real EKGs to visualize the electrical activity of the human heart. For Spector, Weed’s work serves as the foundation for what stands to be an important teaching tool. And it’s a great education for both mentor and mentee.
“We built this program from a blank sheet of paper,” says Spector. “I believe that active learning is better than passive learning for faculty as much as students.”
This experience prepares Weed and her classmates in the Biomedical Engineering Program for any number of careers. It provides a solid foundation for medical school, says McGinnis, as well as doctoral work in biomedical engineering. Tech companies large and small are also eager to hire graduates ready to dive in to new projects and challenges. With Burlington’s growing tech scene, many students get plugged into these opportunities before they even graduate.
For Spector, the skills and aptitudes students develop set them up well for a rapidly evolving range of careers – and some that may not even exist yet.
“This type of education prepares you for whatever you want to do,” says Spector. “It gives you the capacity.”
Other students in the Biomedical Engineering Program are forging unique paths through their four years of study:
Sierra McConnell ‘19
In her three years so far as a student in the Biomedical Engineering Program, Sierra McConnell ‘19 has already built an EKG machine from scratch and designed working spirometers to print 3D. And when she first arrived at UVM, biomedical engineering wasn’t even on her list for potential majors. Getting to know fellow students in the program led her to declare a concentration in Systems Network Biology.
“Now it’s clear to me that majoring in biomedical engineering was the best decision I ever made,” says the Middlesex, Vt., native. “It challenges me every day, but with the support of faculty and other students at UVM success has always been possible.”
Her ongoing role in the lab of UVM Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Rachael Oldinski, Ph.D., has introduced her to bench research at the cutting edge.
McConnell has also ventured out of the lab and into the biomedical workforce. Through her internship with Technical Services Partnership, a division of UVM focused on medical technology, she was able to author a report on cybersecurity recommendations for medical devices that she presented to the cybersecurity board at UVM. The experience gave her a solid foundation into “how engineers play a crucial role in the safe delivery of medical care to patients.”
Jordyn Scism ‘19
Presenting her poster at UVM’s annual Student Research Conference helped Jordyn Scism ’19 hone her public speaking skills in front of a large and diverse audience. “I was really nervous about it, but many people enjoyed listening to what I was working on,” she says. “I was briefly interviewed by a radio station and a reporter on campus who wrote a review and summary of the conference.”
Her research in the lab of Ryan McGinnis, Ph.D., seeks to answer a vexing question for athletes in a variety of sports, from basketball to tennis: are there ways to predict, and therefore prevent, sports injuries? After creating an algorithm that processes wearable sensor data culled from a large sample athletes’ jump landings, Scism is using this information to pinpoint patterns that may lead to various injuries, like ACL tears or sprained ankles. Ultimately, the work could be a first step in a new way to prevent injury. For example, athletes could wear sensors that connect with tablets trainers have on the sidelines, giving them the information they need to spot the warning signs of potential injury.
Scism’s Biosensing and Instrumentation concentration, with a minor in electrical engineering, sets the Olivebridge, NY, native up for a variety of careers. Not only has she taken a deep dive into advanced math, digital signal processing, synthetic biology and a variety of other subjects through her coursework and research, she’s learned first-hand the importance of collaboration in science.
“The community is very welcoming and approachable,” she says, “and everyone just wants to see each other succeed.”
Kaseya Xia ‘19
A junior from Kunming, China, Kaseya Xia ‘19 came to UVM with a specific interest in sensor and signaling technology, a perfect fit with the concentration in Biosensing and Instrumentation. As a volunteer at Burlington Generator, a maker space and business incubator that features a laser cutter, 3D printer, wood and metal shops, a computer lab and more, he has found himself at the nexus of Vermont’s creative economy.
“Sometimes by just talking to designers, I feel like there are so many things I can do in the future,” he says. “This is a very valuable opportunity and resource I have for my college education.”
Xia is also exploring the biomedical field through an internship with the Technical Services Partnership, a division at UVM that helps medical centers across New England incorporate and maintain specialized biomedical technology and devices. He has worked directly with physicians to provide technical support for their research, giving him a sense of the scope of career possibilities.
“This experience has expended my view of what biomedical engineers do,” he says. “It has also given me hands-on experience working on biomedical devices and understanding device inventory management.”
Lara Weed ‘19
As a student in the Cell, Tissue and Organ Biomechanics concentration who is also on the pre-med track, Lara Weed ’19 has taken full advantage of the wealth of research opportunities at UVM. Some have led to national recognition: Her work with Ryan McGinnis, Ph.D., on a validation study of an iPhone app that analyzes a person’s gait led to an oral presentation at the 2017 Biomedical Engineering Society Annual Conference. She’s also working with UVM Professor of Medicine Peter Spector, M.D., on developing a model to find electrical activation cell sites in the heart using EKGs.
Weed’s leadership role as president of the new UVM Biomedical Engineering Society has prompted greater involvement with the Burlington community. The club has created a mentorship program at a local middle school to inspire students to pursue study in STEM fields. The Kingston, N.H. native says she’s inspired by her classmates and the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences faculty as they tackle complex problems through cooperation.
“The community in CEMS is built around teamwork,” she says. “Everyone works together to understand concepts and help other people understand.”