Engineering students complete 10-week summer research program at ECU

Engineering students from East Carolina University and across the country wrapped up a summer blitz of research Friday as part of the Biomedical Engineering in Simulations, Imaging and Modeling (BME-SIM) Research Experience for Undergraduates.

Lauren Philip of Florida Gulf Coast University talks about her research.

The annual 10-week program funded through the National Science Foundation brings together ECU’s departments of engineering, kinesiology and physical therapy with support from the Brody School of Medicine and the colleges of engineering and technology, and of health and human performance. Ten invited students conducted a wide range of research projects involving all aspects of health, from blood flow in the brain of concussed individuals to bone stress in the foot caused by running.

“They were great,” Dr. Chris Venters, assistant professor in the Department of Engineering, said of this year’s students. “Each year we get to see a lot of truly bright students who are very motivated about these projects.”

Sandrena Nalls, an ECU junior engineering major with a biomedical concentration, called the program a great experience.

“I had the opportunity to really learn a lot about graduate school and a lot about academia, how it works and how running a research project works,” she said. “I got along great with all my peers and colleagues here. We developed great relationships, and that’s something I will always remember. The program itself was really good and really well structured, and that allowed me to soak up a lot of knowledge.”

Nalls worked on a research project in which eye tests were used to help determine how oxygen responds and what region of the brain it responds to, looking at differences in healthy individuals and those with concussions.

A high school athlete from Jacksonville, Nalls had a particular interest in the project.

“I was around football players a lot, so I am definitely familiar with concussions and its effects,” Nalls said. “I was lucky enough not to have one, but I definitely know people who did.”

She said the BME-SIM program involved a lot of work but was worth it.

“You’re going to put in a lot of work and some after-hours time studying and learning because you have to get the background information on what research you’re going to be doing,” Nalls said. “There are workshops and some social events we have to attend. You’re packed Monday through Friday.”

Landon Begin of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth talks with Josh Pitzer, director of lab operations for the ECU College of Engineering and Technology.

Landon Begin, a senior bioengineering major at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, worked on research that examined stress to the metatarsal bones in the feet of runners. Long term, the project could help develop better techniques for runners and other athletes as well as for military service members who may have to run or hike with heavy gear.

“The overload of stress can cause microdamage to the bone,” Begin said. “You look at these runners and you think that they’re so healthy, but this other stuff is going on in the background.”

Begin joked that the eastern North Carolina summer weather took some getting used to. “It’s thick. That’s the best way to describe it. And it rains every day, and that just makes the humidity worse.”

But he enjoyed the university.

“It was cool to see another campus,” Begin said. “I’ve only been to my university and it’s smaller. Coming here to such a large, well-known university was definitely interesting. I didn’t realize all of the facilities that are here.”

He said he was glad to have driven the 12 hours from Massachusetts to participate in the program.

“I think it was really good, definitely beneficial especially for someone like me who is looking at graduate school,” Begin said. “It gave me that first experience with how real research is in the field, so it gave me a good overall background. All the members of the cohort lived together, so we were able to bounce ideas off each other, and that was super helpful. Overall, I think it was a fantastic program.”

The BME-SIM program started at ECU in 2014. Its goal is to provide authentic research experiences to undergraduates, specifically underrepresented and underserved students, thus increasing awareness of and application to graduate school. It’s designed to help participants improve their understanding of how to conduct research; clarify and reinforce their STEM career path; provide them greater identification as an engineer or scientist; and increase leadership capacities.

Kumarakura Visvanathan of Mercer University discusses his research.