Acing “ACES”

UCI Graduate Student Shares his Undergraduate STEM Summer Program Experience and More

For the past five summers, the Institute has hosted a total of 42 talented undergraduate college students for the Accelerating Careers in Engineering and Science (ACES) program and its predecessor Pathways to Biophotonics and Biomedical Engineering (PBBE) program. This University of California (UC) Office of the President supported Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) partner program introduces high-achieving, underrepresented undergraduate students to the possibilities of graduate education and to UCI graduate programs in the fields of biomedical engineering, biophotonics and related science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines.

Chris Johnson, a former ACES program participant, is in his third year as a graduate student in the UCI Department of Biomedical Engineering. He shares his ACES experience, impactful research as a UCI graduate student and future career aspirations.

How did you connect with UCI?
As an undergrad at Hampton University, I participated in two UCI internships. The first was after my freshman year. I helped with a pilot study, gathering data to help apply for a grant. I really enjoyed the first internship, so I decided to come for a second time.

I was in UCI Professor of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering, Anatomy & Neurobiology and Bioengineering David Reinkensmeyer’s lab and he does stroke rehabilitation. I helped develop the thumb, index and middle fingers of a hand exoskeleton, which looked like an Ironman hand.

The second summer, I did a stand-alone project, rebuilding a haptic device. When I arrived, the device was in pieces. I reconstructed it and the device worked successfully before I left.

What did you think about those two projects?
The projects were very interesting. Some of the work was difficult. As an undergrad, I studied electrical engineering. For the projects, I had to do some mechanical engineering work. It was definitely a challenge because I hadn’t taken some of the classes that would have helped. Fortunately, I was surrounded by helpful people.

Was this the first time that the exoskeleton was built?
It was Quentin Sanders’ project to build a hand exoskeleton for stroke patients. He was a graduate student in Professor Reinkensmeyer’s lab. Quentin worked on the index and middle fingers, and I created designs and prototypes for the thumb to attach the exoskeleton.

That must have been rewarding to build something to help stroke patients. How did you become interested in this area?
I did robotics in middle school and high school and loved it. During my senior year of high school, my grandfather suffered from a stroke. Once he had a stroke, I thought about what I could do to help. I asked myself questions: “What are my interests?” “What can I find to help him?”

It was interesting because during my first UCI internship, I met Institute Director at the time, Bruce Tromberg. I shared my interests and he suggested that I connect with Dr. Reinkensmeyer. Dr. Tromberg told me about Dr. Reinkensmeyer’s work in stroke rehabilitation and he thought the two of us would get along. The rest is history.

When you returned to your undergrad program, how did you hear about the ACES program?
At the time, ACES was the PBBE program. Hampton University was an HBCU ACES program partner. Hampton University School of Engineering & Technology Assistant Dean for Research Raymond Samuel collaborated with Dr. Tromberg and Institute Associate Director Sari Mahon. As an undergrad, I worked in Dr. Samuel’s lab and he suggested that I apply to ACES. I hadn’t done research and I didn’t know that it was an option after graduating from undergrad. I really liked the program and my interest in conducting research stuck.

What did you think when you returned to UCI to participate in the ACES program?
Quentin Sanders was a great graduate mentor. He introduced me to a lot of UCI faculty and staff. It was almost as if I had a mini-network, so I didn’t feel like I was alone on an island.

Also, Quentin and I are from the same hometown in Maryland. We connected because of our backgrounds and now we’re the best of friends.

What was your experience like in the ACES program?
My experience in ACES was great. We lived on campus 7 with students from other programs. Many different majors were represented – from history to psychology. I called it “the melting pot.” It was interesting to hear about the interests of others and all the research going on at UCI.

What made you decide to apply to graduate school at UCI?
Between the two internships and ACES, I had already been on campus and knew that I wanted to join Dr. Reinkensmeyer’s lab. I also wanted to explore other options in the UC system, so I applied to a couple of UC schools.

Overall, what drew me to UCI was my previous experience and that I had a network. Quentin and former Assistant Dean of the Office of Access and Inclusion Sharnnia Artis were my biggest influences to continue my education and attend graduate school.

I was thankful for the people in the Engineering Department and those in the Engineering program who looked like me. Those in my network shared that this was a good place to grow and pursue a degree.

How did you pick the field of biomedical engineering?
At first, I was interested in mechanical engineering. Dr. Reinkensmeyer suggested biomedical engineering instead. He recommended the field not only because of my electrical engineering background, but because he knew that I was interested in doing clinical work. It was the perfect combination for graduate school and my future career.

Now that you are in graduate school, what are your career aspirations?
Right now, I’m doing stroke rehabilitation. I’m focused on improving ankle function, specifically ankle sensation and movement for walking. When someone has a stroke, one side of the body is affected. Depending on the severity of the stroke, it may be difficult for someone to independently complete their activities of daily living (ADL). Examples of ADLs are getting dressed, getting in and out of a chair, walking, etc. For these examples, it is important that ankles function properly. It may be difficult for them to walk without an assistive device, such as an ankle foot orthosis because of foot drop. Foot drop is muscle weakness that makes it difficult to lift the front part of the foot. This can cause them to trip and fall, so what I focus on is proprioception.

Proprioception is your body’s awareness in space. Some people call it your “sixth sense.” Patients need this awareness to know the position of their ankle.

When I arrived at UCI as a graduate student in June 2019, I told Dr. Reinkensmeyer that I wanted to build a robot. I designed AMPD, or Ankle Measuring Proprioception Device, from the ground up. In February 2020, I finished building AMPD and within a month, it was and is still being used to assess ankles.

I watched the process from the beginning to the end – from the design, to the build and now to watch stroke patients interface with the device. The feedback that patients provided was extremely helpful. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.

Now, I’m building a second robot. In the future, maybe I’ll build another robot for the clinic or launch a company to commercialize the robots that I build.

How is it going building the second robot?
The design of the second robot is going really well and the CAD, or online software, is about 95 percent complete. I tried to take what I learned from building the first robot and applied it to this second version.

The biggest thing that I learned from building AMPD was time management and setting realistic goals. It took me a lot longer to build the robot than I had anticipated. It was extremely challenging and I worked a lot of late nights.

In the upcoming weeks, I will be meeting with the physical therapists who I work closely with to ask for their
feedback. It’s important to get their input because they’re going to operate the machine.

I need to know: What is good? What is bad? The dos and don’ts of the device.

I’ve learned to make things as simple as possible. Complexity is great, but it has to be user friendly, or it will not get used.

Another question that the therapists have asked: “Chris, is it safe?” Safety is the biggest thing. It doesn’t matter if the device helps people. If it’s not safe, then it won’t be used.

Right now, the device is solely for stroke patients, but it has the potential to help many people. People with ankle injuries, including athletes and dancers could benefit – among others.

What do you want to do in the future?
I am considering academia versus industry. I like conducting research that interests me, rather than what a company prefers, and I like to teach. I am a graduate mentor for ACES and I mentor a couple of undergrad students. I get a lot of fulfillment out of watching students’ progress. It makes me smile. I suppose it sounds like I am leaning towards academia.

Would you recommend ACES to other students and if so, what advice would you give students?
I would definitely recommend ACES. The advice that I would give is not to be afraid to try new things. Even if you had one experience or heard about the experience of others, you should try it for yourself. You don’t want to question “what if” later.

How is your grandfather doing? Has he tried the robot?
He’s doing good. He lives in Virginia, so he hasn’t tried the robot. I wish I could transport the machine. Maybe one day. He’s doing good though.

Read the full article in LASER Magazine.