Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Edward Wang awarded NIH grant for work on smartphone-based Alzheimer's screening

Edward Wang (left), Eric Granholm (right)

Edward Wang, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at UC San Diego who directs the Ubiquitous Data and Computing Lab, has received a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop a smartphone app that can screen for early signs of cognitive decline indicative of Alzheimer’s Disease (AD).

Wang, who has a joint appointment in the Design Lab at UC San Diego, will be leading the project with co-investigator Eric Granholm, a professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego and director of the university's Center for Mental Health Technology (MHTech). The National Institute of Aging selected the team for an NIH R21, also known as the Exploratory/Development Grant, which provides support in the early and conceptual stages of a project’s development. As part of a national push towards combating the debilitating effects of AD, the National Institute of Aging looked towards funding novel ways to screen for AD through the use of digital technologies. 

In the team's proposal, titled, “Smartphone Pupillometer for At-Home Screening for Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease,” Wang and Granholm aim to leverage camera systems found in smartphones to capture pupillary responses to cognitive tests as an indicator of the integrity of a specific part of the brain, the locus coeruleus, that has been shown to be one of the first sites affected by AD-related processes. By taking advantage of the smartphone as the vehicle for conducting such a test, Wang and Granholm believe that this approach of using digital technologies to capture physiological signals has the potential of significantly driving down the cost of deploying these screening solutions widely to combat public health challenges like AD.

“By further enhancing the signals that are captured using just your phone with signal processing and machine learning, we are able to derive, what are known as, digital biomarkers,” Wang says.

This approach strongly aligns with the National Institute of Aging’s Notice of Special Interest, which states that “current biomarkers for early detection of prodromal AD [...] are costly and invasive”, and digital biomarkers “can be used to inform disease prediction and management at both the individual and populational level.”

AD is a progressive degenerative disorder of the brain and is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, with the latest statistics showing that at least five million Americans over the age of 65 suffer from the disease. Not only is it the most common form of dementia of elderly adults, it is projected that cases of AD will double by 2025. By 2050, it is projected that a total annual cost for health care for people with AD will be more than $1 trillion. AD is clearly a public health crisis.

“Our solution is based on previous findings in our research with older adults with mild cognitive impairment, where we studied how differences in pupil dilation in response to memory tests are associated with very early signs of AD,” Granholm says. “It is based on these findings that we are developing this smartphone solution.” If successful, Granholm notes, it would be possible for older adults to perform this test even in the comfort of their own homes or by their primary care providers. This is compared with what is available today, which are far more invasive solutions like PET/MRI imaging and lumbar puncture for biomarkers in the spinal fluid.

As a faculty member in the Design Lab, Wang has a particular interest in developing technologies through a lens of human centered design. Wang has had a record of inventing new smartphone-based health monitoring solutions such as hemoglobin/anemia screening, blood pressure monitoring, and ocular disease. In developing these solutions, Wang has worked with a wide range of collaborators across the world to develop and test these systems with end users to make sure that the purported solutions truly can work with the target users and in realistic conditions. “Sometimes what we find is that an idea works well in lab settings where we can control the lighting and temperature of the room, but completely fails in realistic conditions that screening tools like these have to operate under,” Wang says.

Wang working in a village in the Amazon Jungle of Peru testing his smartphone hemoglobin monitor.

In a previous workaround anemia screening, Wang worked with NGOs in Peru to bring his prototype app into villages nestled in the Amazonian Jungle, where NGO staff regularly travel to in order to perform anemia screening and treatments.

"It turns out, we never considered that the main use case for our technology is really to screen for anemia in kids under 3 years old. Although the physics still holds, behaviorally, kids at that age are so different that we basically couldn’t get the kids to stay still long enough to be able to measure them with our app,” Wang reflects. “One of the common misconceptions in engineering research is that we can always build it to work better with enough resources once a technology leaves the lab,” Wang says. “The issue with that kind of approach is that sometimes that can lead us into solutions that don’t have a chance of working. That is why human centered design being a central loop in the research is so important.”

Wang notesthat keeping the elder user base in mind is crucial in the success of this research endeavor. “One of the things I think is particularly interesting in working on digital technology for the older population is that it requires a lot more nuances around usability,” Wang explains. “Our big hope is that [our app] works with little to no training with either home care providers or with the older adults themselves.”

Wang cautions, however, that these solutions are far from ready and requires extensive research on how well such digital biomarkers can differentiate diseases and how they will ultimately serve in the entire ecosystem of healthcare. “Our research aims to solve big healthcare problems by looking for creative ways to invent new ways our society can screen and treat diseases. But this shift that brings healthcare closer to everyday life, literally into our pockets, means that we will have to be very intentional in our designs of how people will use these technologies to be not only useful, but safe as well,” he says.

Read more about Wang’s research on digital health technologies at UC San Diego.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Bioengineering alumna earns SWE Outstanding Collegiate Member award

Recent UC San Diego alumna Elizabeth Heyde, who earned her master’s in bioengineering in 2021, is one of 10 students in the country honored with the Society of Women Engineers’ Outstanding Collegiate Member Award. Heyde will be recognized at the SWE national conference on October 21-23 in Indianapolis. 

Heyde has been involved in SWE from her undergraduate years at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, through her time as a graduate student at UC San Diego, and even now as a working professional. Her main goal through SWE has been to reach out to the next generation of engineers, to help them have a better understanding of their options. 

As an undergraduate, Heyde helped develop the SWENext outreach program for students in grades K-12, launching 11 local SWENext clubs. SWENext provides young students with access to programs, mentors, and resources designed to develop the leadership skills and self-confidence to succeed in engineering and technology careers.

She continued to be involved in outreach through SWE at UC San Diego, where she advised the chapter on their SWENext activities, and served on the Edge and Envision outreach event committees. 

At the SWE national level, Heyde is a work group lead for SWENext Clubs on the SweNext and Student Programs committee, and is a work group lead for Training Adult Advocates on the Outreach Committee. 

“I'm really passionate about outreach to younger students in general,” said Heyde. “I was really lucky because my parents made sure I was exposed to all sorts of different things. I got to really choose what I was interested in, and STEM was one of those things. I realize that’s not something everyone has the benefit of, which is why I'm passionate about outreach and why I got involved with SWE.”

Though she initially joined SWE to help young students learn about engineering, Heyde said she wound up finding a vital sense of community through the organization, as well.

“I’ve had a lot of great experiences through SWE in general,” she said. “It was a community I didn’t realize I was lacking until I joined, and realized there were a lot of other like-minded people, especially women, who had similar industry and career goals. They really resonated with things I wanted to do in my future so I got to be around a lot of those like-minded individuals, and I made a lot of friends.”

As a student at UC San Diego, Heyde, who is now a research and development engineer at Medtronic working in their structural heart group on heart valve therapies, was part of a team of engineers and physicians rapidly developing an emergency ventilator for COVID-19 patients. The team developed a low-cost, easy-to-use device built around a ventilator bag usually found in ambulances. The UCSD MADVent Mark 5, as it’s called, cost just $500 per unit, compared to $50,000 for state of the art models. 

“This was a cool project because there was an immediate impact, which resonated with me and is why I’m interested in medical devices in general,” said Heyde. “I think a lot of times with research, the length between working on something and seeing its impact on patients can be huge. I was lucky to work on a project that had such an immediate impact.”

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Students get hands-on with Summer EnVision Experience

Blake Iwaisako and Zoe Tcheng work
in the EnVision Arts and Engineering
Maker Studio
 A team of five UC San Diego undergraduate students spent the summer developing a device to help TaylorMade Golf study how minute differences in the golf balls they produce affect the balls’ performance. The 10-week Summer EnVision Experience (SEE) internship brings students from across campus and from various engineering disciplines together to collaborate on a project sponsored by a partner company or organization.

SEE was designed by the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering to provide sophomore and junior students with hands-on experience creating, pitching and developing a project from start to finish. During the internship, students gain hands-on experience with the wide array of tools available in the EnVision Arts and Engineering Maker Studio. For Zoe Tcheng, a bioengineering student, SEE gave her the opportunity to develop her computer modeling skills, and ultimately confirmed her choice of major.

Ariel Navarro builds
a prototype of the
manufacturing pipeline

“I definitely got better at soldering, I soldered most of this printed circuit board here,” Tcheng said. “It was rough at the beginning but I got a lot better. And I learned some modeling, which is what I was really interested in. I learned a lot of arduino coding, which I had done in class before, but not as fleshed out as this project and not with as many components.

“What I figured out from this is that I definitely don’t want to do mechanical engineering,” said Tcheng, laughing. “The track I’m in as a bioengineer is biosystems, so we’re more kind of more electrical engineering focused. This experience reinforced that I prefer that, and enjoy the soldering and programming.”

Yichen Xiang works on electrical
components of the team's device
For electrical engineering student Ariel Navarro, SEE not only helped him develop more skills using the tools and machinery at EnVision, but helped him see the reality of their limits, as well.

“At first it was a lot of knowledge to dig into, because there are so many different things to learn; we’re 3D printing, using CAD for parts, laser cutting. It was a little overwhelming,” said Navarro. “But thankfully we were taking it one step at a time. One of the things you don’t understand until you experience it, is that a lot of machines aren’t as precise as you think. And even though it’s just a little bit off, it can throw the whole piece off. Right now for example, we have to redo a component because the hole a pipe will fit in is just a little bit too big, and the pipe is wobbling inside. So even though we measured it, it’s not always exactly precise.”

The students also said they came away with a greater understanding of what it means to collaborate as a cross-disciplinary team.

Caitlin Kim uses the laser cutter
at EnVision

“I learned a lot, especially with teamwork,” said Tcheng. “Because we were here together four days a week, for 10 weeks.”

Navarro agreed, noting that no matter how technically skilled you are, communication is still key.

“Working on a project like this, I learned to communicate,” he said. “You’ve got to make sure you’re letting people know what you’re doing and your timing. You have to maintain constant communication when you’re working with other people.”

In previous years, SEE interns have worked with the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography to develop the aquarium’s first virtual reality exhibit; a sound-matching game to share complicated whale call research with the public; and an exhibit focused on the albedo effect and an interactive RFID system. The internship was cancelled in 2020 due to COVID-19.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

STARS summer research program goes virtual

The ongoing pandemic didn’t stop students from gaining valuable hands-on research experience this summer through the SummerTraining Academy for Research Success (STARS) program at UC San Diego. Melissa Lepe, an aerospace engineering student at UC Irvine, got creative with her STARS mentorUC San Diego structural engineering professor Ingrid Tomac to find ways to gain data analysis skills while advancing our knowledge of mudslides.

“When there are forest fires, mudflows often occur after the fire,” said Lepe. “And in Tomac’s Geo-Micromechanics Research Group, we wanted to study the exact patterns of behavior during those mudflows, so we studied the soil particles and how they attach to air particles, to try and really see what we can learn about their movement, and what we can predict to establish better building infrastructure and warning signals for mudslides.”

 Since the research experience was virtual, Lepe and her graduate student mentor, UC San Diego structural engineering PhD student Wenpei Ma, tag teamed the research process. Ma would conduct experiments using very high resolution cameras in Tomac’s lab, and send some of the resulting images and footage to Lepe to analyze. 

“My graduate mentor is working on different types of samples, testing different types of sand to see how fine, coarse and medium sand behave during a mudslide. He takes high resolution footage of these particles moving around during tests so we can see how they bind with each other and make aglomerate, a combination of sand and air particles. He uploads the videos remotely to a drive, and I analyze them from here.”

 From this high resolution footage, Lepe is able to track these very small particles as they move during the experiment, following a single particle across a span of time to see how it behaves, which particles it is drawn to, or if particles in the aglomerate separate when they come in contact with another particle. Tomac’s team will use this information to try and answer questions about how the size of sand particles impacts the speed of mudslides; how gravity impacts different sizes and shapes of particles; and ultimately what we can do to mitigate the impacts of mudslides. 

In addition to this research, the STARS program provides students with GRE and grad school prep; a series of speakers on topics ranging from imposter syndrome to different paths to grad school and the breadth of careers possible with a graduate degree; leadership activities; and a community of students to support one another.

 “I’m a first generation college student so I didn't even know what to expect when it came to applying to graduate school,” said Lepe. “I thought the GRE was just another SAT, and in some ways it is, but there are other components. So having the GRE class definitely helped me see what to expect, but also learn ways that I could effectively study and approach the exam.” 

Lepe said the community building aspects of the STARS program, even virtually, were also particularly helpful.

 “It’s more than just a one summer research program--it’s about finding a community with other like minded individuals and finding ways to build up one another and potentially become more than just people you met during the program, but a resource in the future or someone you could reach out and talk to. It’s definitely about making connections that are more impactful than one summer.”

 Lepe, who has conducted research on renewable energy and power plants at UC Irvine, plans to earn a PhD with a focus on energy systems and propulsion in aerospace, working toward energy alternatives to create more sustainable airplanes. 

 Learn more about the STARS program: https://grad.ucsd.edu/diversity/programs/stars/index.html 

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Cameron Yenche: a summer of automation

Alpacas, cancer diagnostics, and autonomous trash-collecting robots, oh my! It’s been a busy summer for mechanical engineering student Cameron Yenche, who interned at medical-grade genetic testing company Invitae in Boulder, Colorado, while also interning remotely for San Diego-based Clear Blue Sea, building a robot to autonomously collect trash in the ocean. 

Yenche, who has a concentration in renewable energy and environmental flows, and a minor in entrepreneurship and innovation, said these two experiences helped solidify why engineering is the right field for him.

“I was able to see that the solutions of engineering can have an impact on so many people,” he said. “I see engineering as the way to have the most impact with my work.”

At Invitae, which provides a variety of genetic testing for medical decision making, including testing of tumors to better treat specific types of cancers, testing for genetic illnesses and prenatal screenings, Yenche worked to develop an autonomous pipetting system to streamline the company’s manufacturing process. He also worked on projects utilizing computer vision to increase production quality control, as well as many other projects that support or enhance diagnostic production capacity. 

“It’s all over the place because the manufacturing process is quite interesting," he said. "Essentially you’re going from proteins and enzymes to capsules, and the process of getting there requires lots of physical processes that involve liquid nitrogen and freeze drying, while being maintained in a certain environment with regards to humidity...it’s complex.”

Outside of automating this manufacturing process, he also spent time working to design a 50-foot version of Clear Blue Sea’s autonomous Floating Robot to Eliminate Debris (FRED). Yenche started with the non-profit in November 2020, and was able to continue his role remotely over the summer. 

“This summer we’ve been focused on scaling up the models of the smaller vessels they already have. I initially came on as a mechanical design engineer-type role–essentially developing the conceptual design of a 50-foot version of the FRED–and it has led into a more project management oriented position, where I am leading the team and also working beside everyone as an engineer.”

The ultimate goal is to have a large mother ship with a fleet of 50-foot FREDs out in the ocean collecting trash autonomously, and bringing it back to the vessel to be processed for recycling there, or stored for processing later.

His biggest surprise of the summer didn’t have anything to do with work, though. 

“Probably the most interesting part about this internship is that I’m living in an AirBnb that’s an alpaca farm,” he said. “It’s kind of crazy. There’s alpacas, and then a bunch of chickens, a pair of ducks. It's really cool. Every morning there’s a rooster that crows, and the alpacas come up and sniff your nose.”

On campus, Yenche was part of the Social Entrepreneurship Association, which introduced him to several of the internships he’s had over the course of his undergraduate years. 

Friday, August 20, 2021

Team Internship Program helps alumnus land industry job

Every summer since 2003, small teams of two to five UC San Diego engineering students have been sent out to local companies, tasked with applying their skills and collaborating with each other and company engineers to complete a real-world project. For Robert Moroto, who earned his bachelor’s, master’s and PhD in mechanical engineering at the Jacobs School of Engineering, his Team Internship Program (TIP) experience was so positive that he not only participated for three summers with the same company, but wound up working for the sponsor company, Solar Turbines, once he completed his PhD. 

Jacobs School alumnus
 Robert Moroto

Moroto is now a development engineer in systems and analytics at Solar Turbines, the San Diego-based designer and manufacturer of industrial gas turbines for electrical power generation, marine propulsion, natural gas production and a variety of other uses. He said his TIP experiences were crucial in preparing him for this role. 

“There are probably too many ways TIP was beneficial to list them all,” Moroto said. “If a student’s goal is to do engineering full-time, then, in my opinion, TIP is as close as you can come to getting that experience in a realistic setting with the additional benefits of working in a very close-knit team while in the context of a well-structured program.”

Moroto didn’t know many engineers growing up, so participating in the Team Internship Program helped him get a sense of what a day-in-the-life could be like for an engineer, gaining a better understanding of the workflow, expectations, constraints, and opportunities of engineering in a commercial setting. 

Over the course of the three summers that he participated as a TIP intern with Solar Turbines, Moroto and his teammates were able to develop a virtual sensor to estimate fuel density from data measured by existing non-density sensors on gas turbine engines; investigated an algorithm for estimating the energy content of fuel entering a gas turbine engine; and studied several different methods for reducing the start-up time of Solar Turbines’ gas turbine engines. 

“The biggest reason I decided to pursue a TIP opportunity was because each project is focused on a small team operating in a non-academic setting,” said Moroto. “The advantages of this style of internship really cannot be overstated. The commercial/non-academic setting of TIP is important because projects need to satisfy realistic types of complexity that will not be encountered in school, such as making sure their work can be applied to an entire existing product line, where each product has its own specifications, for example.”

Moroto recommends that any student even slightly curious about TIP keep an eye on the projects listed each year, and take the leap to apply for any that are of interest.  

“If you don’t succeed, the interview process alone is a great experience. If you land a project, then you will probably be given a rare opportunity that may potentially kick start your career.”

Students interested in participating in the Team Internship Program next summer can find more information here. TIP recruitment runs from October through April, so it’s not too early to start thinking about applying!

For companies looking to sponsor a team of two to five engineering students for a summer project, get more information and complete the project description form here

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Jacobs School engineers recognized as photonics Rising Stars

Two Jacobs School of Engineering affiliates were among the 13 researchers recognized by Laser Focus World’s inaugural Rising Stars Award program. Bioengineering Professor Lingyan Shi, and electrical engineering alumna Sonika Obheroi, were recognized by the magazine for their contributions to the photonics industry. 

Shi, an assistant professor of bioengineering, uses ultrafast optical imaging, including stimulated Raman scattering and multiphoton fluorescence, to look inside cells to answer biological and medical questions, and even diagnose disease. Read her
Rising Star showcase here, and learn more about her research in this profile

Obheroi, who earned her master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering from UC San Diego, is now a product manager for near-eye display test products at Gamma Scientific. These devices emulate the human eye for accurate characterization of AR/VR/MR and heads-up displays. Read her Rising Star showcase here