Image: Sharon in the clean room with silicon wafers holding the first few layers of her electrodes. They are about to be deposited with a few nanometer thick layer of SiC via the PECVD (Plasma-enhanced chemical vapor deposition) machine shown.

In July, UW Bioengineering alumna and recipient of 2015-16 Fulbright Student and Whitaker fellowships Sharon Newman arrived in Germany eager to investigate neuroprosthetics. She started in Marburg, where she participated in Fulbright’s German language institute program.

Five days a week, Sharon studied German in a class of other Fulbright students from diverse backgrounds, from chemical engineering to painting to theater directing. When not in class, she and her 30 classmates immersed themselves in German culture while visiting nearby cities and landmarks. The experience helped Sharon gain a strong grasp of the language. Now, she admits, “Sometimes it takes me a while to remember some words in English.”

In September, she began her project at the University of Freiburg’s Department of Microsystems Engineering (IMTEK). Before arriving, she planned to investigate an advanced neuroprosthetic electrode, TIME (Transverse Intrafascicular Multichannel Electrode) and address challenges impeding its clinical use. The electrode is designed to help amputees gain real-time feedback of sensations like heat and pressure – as if a missing limb was intact – and mitigate phantom limb pain, a condition that causes amputation site discomfort.

Sharon proposed to help researchers at IMTEK optimize the neural integration of TIME in rat studies and improve the electrode’s ability to instill sensory perception. She also planned to shadow neurologists at German and Italian hospitals to learn about factors impacting access to equitable health care.

When Sharon started at IMTEK, however, her focus shifted towards electrode manufacturing. She is investigating ways to design and build durable, longer lasting neuroprosthetic electrodes by mitigating mechanical and electrical stress that occurs during the manufacturing process and trial use. “This is actually a more productive project,” she explains. “Improving the lifetime of implantable electrodes is a much more pressing need in this field than increasing precision, for now.”

In her new project, Sharon is designing and building her own electrodes and will test them via surface analysis, in-vitro and in-vivo studies. She is also learning how to use specialized equipment, such as clean room and surface analysis tools, to build and test her electrodes.

Even though Sharon’s project has changed, she is still interested in learning about TIME. She is planning to travel with her research mentor, who oversees the TIME project, to Switzerland and Italy later on to observe implantation and testing of the electrode.

Before graduating and traveling to Germany, Sharon was weighing her options between a career in research or medicine. As her research project changed, she became more confident in pursuing an engineering research career, possibly in industry. “I realize now that there are graduate programs that offer clinical experiences while upholding engineering research rigor, which will prepare me to transition technology into clinical practice,” she says. “Previously, I thought I could only get this kind of experience by going to medical school. ”

Outside of her work in the lab, Sharon is auditing two courses in the Microsystems Department at the University of Freiburg. She is also learning about the role of work-life balance in German culture. “One of the biggest differences here is the separation of work and play,” she explains. “When I’m at work, it truly is all work. I really like this lifestyle because I’m able to be really productive, and enjoy life outside of work.”

In her free time, Sharon continues to practice her German, explore Freiburg and travel around Europe.