Ryan Schmad (BSME '23) is the recipient of the 2022 Best Undergradute Podium Award from the Rocky Mountain American Society of Biomechanics. His research mentor is Rachel Marbaker, a current PhD student in Alaa Ahmed's Neuromechanics Laboratory.
Ryan, tell us about your research. What was the study you worked on?
Ryan: I helped complete an isometric grip force experiment studying how individuals’ gripping behavior changes in the presence of reward. I used a robotic arm manipulandum where subjects would grip a force transducer that would move a cursor on a screen to targets. These targets would randomly appear in one of four locations. Rewarded targets were accompanied by visual feedback (a yellow flash of light and a message of +4 points) and audio feedback (a higher pitched ping), while non-rewarded targets did not have accompanying visual or audio feedback. After analysis we found that subjects had a faster reaction, greater peak force, and greater peak force rate when gripping for rewarded targets. This shows that individuals reach faster and with a greater vigor towards rewarded targets.
How did you first get involved in research and what drew you to neuromechanics?
Ryan: I had the opportunity to work with the lab initially through the ME Summer Research Program. I had always been interested in research and when I received the email for this opportunity I thought it would be a great chance to see how engineering and research go together. What drew me to the Neuromechanics Lab was the unique questions that they were trying to answer with respect to human behavior and neural control, along with how they found answers through reverse engineering. I was also interested in the realm of biomedical engineering. Another big thing that drew me to the lab was how nice Rachel was when I met with her for a brief interview. I felt that I would be in a supportive environment and would have the opportunity to learn a ton from her and others in the lab. I had a blast after that first summer.
I wanted to continue with the research project and received funding from the STEM Routes Uplift Program to continue working in the lab.
What kinds of challenges did you encounter in your research? Is there anything you learned that surprised you?
Ryan: One challenge that I found was the technical reading. I hadn’t read many research papers before this opportunity and they were quite difficult to understand and get through at first. With support and practice, I was able to learn how to extract the relevant information from an article. Another challenge that I ran into for my research was the analysis of large data sets that had a lot of noise or just unexpected behavior. With hundreds of thousands of data points, it took a lot of time to learn how to properly sort through them to get the information that I wanted but also to parse through individual trials that had either errors or such strange behavior that it messed up our code for analysis. Since I had never done research before, especially with humans, I never realized just how noisy behavior and data could be, so it was super interesting to see that.
What advice would you share with a student interested in getting involved in research?
Ryan: My best advice would be to just go for it! I wasn’t sure what research would involve in an engineering setting so the best way to see if you like it is to try it out. Research has shaped what I would like to do with my future and I think it can have that kind of impact on anybody. In a more technical sense, I would also encourage someone interested in research to go to Google Scholar and find some articles to read to get an idea of what the content looks like in this area of work.
Rachel, what was your path to a PhD studying neuromechanics?
Rachel: I came to Neuromechanics in a bit of a roundabout way. I went into college aiming for a degree in behavioral economics, agreeing to test the waters of engineering to soothe my parents’ worry. I loved engineering and my undergraduate degrees were in mechanical engineering and mathematics. My undergraduate thesis focused on creative innovation in actuators, focusing on shape-changing textiles. In my junior year, I applied for an undergraduate research experience at the University of Delaware where I worked on the development of a treadmill-based rehabilitation program for recovering stroke patients. As a lifelong athlete, I was immediately captivated by the intricacies of human movement and its interaction with the brain. Learning plays such a subtle and crucial role in how we navigate movement in everyday life!
I applied to a variety of graduate programs under a broad range of departmental titles -- psychology, physiology, neuroscience, biomedical engineering, mechanical engineering, exercise science, physical therapy -- in every case looking to work toward understanding movement for applications in rehabilitation and performance. I joined Alaa’s lab because in an early conversation, we encountered a shared interest in behavioral economics. Neuromechanics allows me to study movement in the context of understanding how the brain controls behavior and use that information to develop rehabilitation interventions. In developing models of the brain, we apply behavioral economics to understand how the brain manages energy, accuracy, and choice in movements. It’s all synergy and the clear pathway to application is exciting!
As a PhD student, what role has mentoring played in your work?
Rachel: Mentoring is so much fun! Bringing in new students and getting to share my excitement with them helps me develop my communication skills, both in collaboration and in communicating my ideas to an audience with a different background. Each student’s unique contributions add nuance and perspective to the project, from working across cultures to collaborating with a mentee who used their game development background to build an experimental set-up in a virtual reality environment. Having mentees keeps me consistently involved in a project because I am consistently engaging with the student’s progress and collaboratively problem solving with them. Finally, I love being able to support research experiences for students that might inspire them to pursue a graduate degree.
What advice would you share with a graduate student interested in mentoring?
Rachel: Absolutely bring on a mentee. Not only do they help with the data collection and experimental development, but they help you improve your teaching and communication skills. I want to promote collaboration, and I have a rule that my mentees should never be stuck on a problem for more than two hours. At that point I want them to reach out so we can problem solve together and keep the project moving forward. I schedule weekly meetings where we assess progress, plan next steps, and talk through issues and project motivations. My lab also encourages mentees to attend weekly lab meetings to ensure that they are part of the lab community and have the opportunity to ask questions, learn from lab members other than me, and engage in discussions about the larger research field.