Student Q&A: Biomedical Engineering Ph.D. Candidate in the Movement Control Rehabilitation Laboratory
Sophie Dewil, Ph.D. Candidate, works in the Movement Control Rehabilitation Laboratory with hopes of bridging the gap between biomedical innovation and clinical implementation after she graduates
Now in her third year of her Ph.D. program, Sophie Dewil works with Raviraj Nataraj, assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. Her research in Nataraj’s Movement Control Rehabilitation Laboratory focuses on attempting to develop new rehabilitation techniques for people with neurological disorders.
Dewil joined Avery Aquino, third-year biomedical engineering student, to talk about her experience.
Aquino: Why did you decide to pursue a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering?
Dewil: For a while, I knew that I wanted to do a Ph.D. because I love research. I also love learning, and [pursuing a Ph.D.] is basically just learning your entire life, which is great. I didn’t really know that BME was a thing until my last year of undergrad. Then, I sort of stumbled upon it and realized that it could be a really good way to integrate my interests: neuroscience and cognitive science. It gives me the opportunity to look at the brain while also focusing on developing technologies. So it’s a good mix of things, and it opens me up to a lot of possibilities.
A: Why did you decide to come to Stevens to pursue your Ph.D. ?
D: While we do have a biomedical engineering department, I specifically came for my advisor, Dr. Nataraj, as it is usually the case with a Ph.D. program. You join for the person. So, I’m here because I’m interested in the research he does, and I think I can learn from it and be a part of it.
A: What kind of work are you doing in Dr. Nataraj’s lab? Can you describe that type of work?
D: We do a lot of different types of work. A general overview is that we work to develop rehabilitation technologies for people with neurological disorders like stroke, spinal cord injury and traumatic brain injury. And there are a lot of different ways that we go about doing that. The work I’m currently starting is [that] I am looking to develop new rehabilitation techniques that involve forcing people to make errors when they’re doing rehabilitation. The theory is that when somebody makes a mistake, it makes them take a step back, reevaluate how they’re coming out of the problem and then make a new plan. So this is very, very early research. I’m running a pilot study. So, I’m trying to translate [this] into the motor domain and specifically apply it to physical rehabilitation, and my population of interest is people with spinal cord injury.
A: Do go in person to work in the lab every day?
D: Is it every day? Most days, yeah. A lot of the work that I do can be done [at home] a lot of the time. So I do a lot of data analysis and I have that all on my computer. But we have really fancy, expensive technology in the lab, so whenever we need to use that, I have to be there. We also go to the Veterans Affairs (VA) Hospital in the Bronx to do research there occasionally, which is awesome.
A: At the VA Hospital, what kind of research do you do? It’s a partnership?
D: Yes, we actually just ran our last participant for a study we’ve been doing [there] for the past couple of years. The study focused on analyzing the effects of different types of feedback on rehabilitation. . We give feedback to participants with a spinal cord injury that’s either visual or haptic, which is like vibrations on their hand, or a combination of the two. We look at how they perform a motor task with all of these types of feedback, and we try to figure out what’s best.
A: Has there been any memorable achievements or events you’ve experienced so far?
D: I had to pass my proposal, which I did at the end of last year, and that was definitely memorable. I mean, it’s a process that everybody has to go through, and that’s how I developed the idea of surrounding errors. I got so much out of [that process], and I feel a little bit bitter saying that because it’s such a tough process. But I really did get a lot out of it.
A: So after you earn your Ph.D., do you have a specific career plan? What’s your next move?
D: So, since I just received my master’s here, I have probably about four years left in my Ph.D. After I graduate? Who knows. For a couple of years in the city, I worked for a lab that was a combination of a research lab and rehabilitation clinic. Their whole thing was to bridge the gap between product development and implementation in the rehab space. So that’s something I’m really passionate about, and I would like to work in that after I graduate somehow, integrating industry with rehabilitation.
A: Do you have anything important to say that you haven’t spoken about yet? Any advice for people looking into master’s/Ph.D. programs?
D: I feel like I had a little bit of a unique journey here. Even back when I was in high school, I thought I was going into psychology. Then I went to undergrad, and I decided to do neuroscience. Then a couple of years in, I decided to add on cognitive science. And then, finally, I decided I wanted to do BME, but also, I realized I wanted to focus on rehabilitation. Now, I’m 28, and I was 26 when I started this program. I feel like I’m a pretty good example of knowing that sometimes it takes time to find what you really want to do. And that’s completely okay. I took four years off between undergrad and my Ph.D. program. It was a really valuable time for me, and I think a lot of people will be really scared to do that. A lot of people feel like they’re on a track where they need to just rush through, but that’s really not what has to happen. It’s just really important to find the things that you’re passionate about, and not necessarily the things you think you should be passionate about.