Photo: Sharon Newman with RAVEN surgical robot in UW’s BioRobotics Laboratory

UW Bioengineering undergraduate student Sharon Newman is a 2015 recipient of a Fulbright Student Study/Research Grant and Whitaker International Program Fellowship. After she graduates in June, she will spend the next year applying her expertise in neuroprosthetics, robotics and engineering while working with universities and hospitals in Germany, Switzerland and Italy.

Sharon will be based at the University of Freiburg in Freiburg im Breisgau, a city in the southwestern Baden-Wuerttemberg region of Germany, close to the country’s borders with Switzerland and France. She will work with the university’s Department of Microsystems Engineering (IMTEK), Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Lausanne, Switzerland, and clinicians in Germany and Italy.

Through her experience studying, working and volunteering in the United States and Taiwan, Sharon understands the value of international collaboration in promoting research discovery. As she travels to Europe, Sharon looks forward to tackling cutting-edge research problems while expanding her perspective of global health care and the culture of medicine.

Advancing neuroprosthetics, increasing global access to assistive technologies

Working with clinicians, engineers and scientists abroad, Sharon will explore the interface of neuroscience, physiology and microsystems engineering with the objective of refining the sensory processing abilities of prosthetic devices. At IMTEK, she will work in the Biomedical Microtechnology lab of Prof. Thomas Stieglitz. There, she will investigate TIME (Transverse Intrafascicular Multichannel Electrode), an advanced neuroprosthetic electrode.

TIME has promising implications for neuroprosthetic devices. It could help amputees receive real-time sensory feedback – as if a missing limb was still intact. This could help wearers achieve improved movement and gain perception of sensations like heat and pressure. TIME may also help mitigate phantom limb pain, a phenomenon that causes amputees to experience tingling, burning, aching and other discomfort at the site of amputation.

As innovative as TIME is, it has not yet been perfected. Researchers have found that its alignment with nerves critical to sensory perception can shift via natural limb movement, which may cause the wearer to experience incorrect or overwhelming sensations. Sharon will work on improving TIME by optimizing its placement in rats and conducting signal analysis to detect its sensory stimulation abilities. Sharon’s efforts will help researchers discover more precise neural feedback methods.

Through her work abroad, Sharon not only hopes to advance innovation in neuroprosthetics but also learn about obstacles that impede equitable health care around the world. By shadowing neurologists at German and Italian hospitals, she hopes to learn about factors that promote successful health care, and about clinical limitations. As she explores these diverse perspectives, Sharon aims to develop strategies for increasing underserved communities’ access to assistive technologies.

Personal experience motivates Sharon to pursue bioengineerng

Born and raised until age seven in Taiwan, Sharon has seen first-hand how access to assistive technologies can improve people’s lives.  Today, significant numbers of Taiwanese live with disabilities caused by polio. In Taiwan, polio remained a public health threat and affected tens of thousands until the 1980s. Many of those disabled by polio experience social stigma and live in underserved communities that lack adequate health care and access to simple assistive devices like crutches and orthotics.

Sharon’s own mother was diagnosed with polio as a young child and is now predominantly wheelchair-bound. Seeing her mother’s daily struggles, Sharon sought out assistive technologies that might improve her quality of life. She found promising devices but was disappointed to learn that they were out of reach – they were too expensive, not designed for lightweight people like her mother, or otherwise not available.

Sharon transformed her frustration to a strong drive to increase the availability, accessibility and utility of assistive technologies. “If I could one day create some sort of prosthetic device that could help my mom, or people like her, get up and walk again, that would be incredible,” she says. Motivated to discover how robotics and medicine could help mobility-impaired people, she joined UW’s BioRobotics Laboratory, and decided to major in bioengineering.

International research opportunity refines Sharon’s research vision

At the BioRobotics Laboratory, Sharon has worked on a number of diverse projects. For her first project, she helped researchers model minimally invasive surgical approaches for neurosurgery. She next developed low-cost “tissue phantoms”, bio-inspired materials made of silicone that mimic human tissue, for use in medical training. Sharon was invited to present this work at the BioE AP Open House and BMES Annual Conference in 2013. Since then, she has adapted the technique to a high school teaching module, which she presented at a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation teacher workshop. This curriculum is published through Seattle BioMed and is currently used in several schools in the greater Seattle area. She also designed 3D-printed ear models to improve surgical methods for treating ear deformities.

It was not until Sharon completed an internship at the Industrial Technology Research Institute in Taiwan in 2013, however, that she developed a clearer vision of how to apply research to her goal of improving assistive technologies. There, she helped researchers improve a lower-extremity exoskeleton device that helps a mobility-impaired person stand up and walk. She worked with researchers, clinicians and patients to analyze gait and movement patterns and obtain data on natural human movement. She collaborated with researchers to use her data to improve the exoskeleton’s ability to move more naturally with its wearer.

Sharon returned to UW after her experience in Taiwan with a refined research focus and renewed perspective. She began her capstone research project, which would eventually form the basis of the work that she will continue in Europe. In this project, she sought to close the sensory feedback loop between wearers of prostheses and their devices to help wearers gain a sense of touch and improved control of their devices. To achieve this, Sharon is using her lab’s surgical robot, RAVEN, to create a method to to identify and map sensations in residual limbs, and eventually study sensory feedback.

Looking forward and future directions

Before she sets foot into her lab in Germany, Sharon is eager to immerse herself in German culture – despite it being unfamiliar. “I’ve never been to Europe,” she explains. “I’ve taken two quarters of German at UW. I don’t know much about German culture.” Prior to starting her project, Sharon will participate in Fulbright’s German language institute program in Marburg, Germany this summer to learn more about the country’s language and customs.

As she travels to Europe, Sharon looks forward to seeing her research vision realized through cross-border partnerships. “It’s exciting to have the ability to go between the three countries on the same project. It’s going to be absolutely phenomenal,” she says. She’s also excited about taking neurophysiology and signal processing classes at the University of Freiburg.

Moreover, she hopes her experience will help her decide whether to go to medical school or pursue a Ph.D. in the future. She believes shadowing clinicians will help inform her decision, as will learning about additional projects at the University of Freiburg and EPFL. She is particularly enthusiastic about exploring opportunities at EPFL, “to see if that’s a fitting school for me to complete a Ph.D.”

After studying bioengineering at UW, Sharon knows she can fulfill her passion and goals regardless of which direction she chooses. “As a doctor, I can bring in my engineering background and view the human body as an electrical analogy. If I’m Ph.D. bound, I have the biological systems understanding to know why a specific signal pathway that exists in the body isn’t working.”

Studying bioengineering has also helped Sharon understand that she can combine both clinical and engineering approaches into a career that fulfills her goal of improving access to assistive technologies. “BioE helps me in the aspect that I do have the option of both (a career in medicine and research),” she explains. “Either way I go, I will be able to veer towards the same overarching goal.”