The U.S. is facing a critical shortage of highly-trained STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workers. According to a 2012 report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), the U.S. must produce more than 34 percent more STEM graduates each year in order to remain a global leader in science and technology.
Electrical and computer engineering professor Jose “Pepe” Luis Contreras-Vidal said he believes getting students excited about STEM at very early ages is the key to addressing this shortage of STEM workers.
Each year, Pepe said that high school students and K-12 teachers contact him to ask about research opportunities within his Non-Invasive Brain Machine Interface Systems Laboratory at UH. “Sometimes it’s because they found my website or Facebook page and want to learn more about the brain, robots or exoskeletons. Sometimes they saw [my lab group] working with robots on TV or they saw us do a demonstration at an outreach event and they have questions. I always, always respond to those.”
Pepe received one such e-mail last spring from Rachel Roth, a rising junior at The Woodlands High School. In lieu of spending her summer catching up on television reruns and playing video games like many of her peers, Roth decided to apply to the Methodist Hospital Caring Teen Program and the Houston Methodist Research Institute [HMRI] Summer Internship Program, both of which she was accepted into.
Roth was attracted to these programs due to her keen interest in the field of biomechanics. “I knew I wanted to do something with exoskeletons,” she said. When Roth relayed this interest to volunteer coordinators at HMRI, they immediately referred her to Pepe, who also serves as a Full Affiliate in HMRI’s Department of Neurosurgery.
Every year, Pepe welcomes at least one high school student to work in his lab alongside undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students. Last summer, Pepe accepted Roth into his lab to work on a study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In this project, Pepe’s team is examining the development of neural networks of the brain involved in social behaviors such as imitation and turn-taking. Although still a couple of years away from entering college, Roth was able to play a vital role in this cutting-edge research all thanks to an email she wrote to Pepe asking for more information about his research.
Through this project, the NIH has funded researchers across the world to study how brain systems related to communicating, interacting and mimicking develop in infants and young children. To conduct this research, Pepe’s group recruits infants and toddlers to participate in the study and fits them with a small EEG skull cap (more or less a swim cap covered in tiny, glowing electrodes) which can noninvasively record the baby’s brain wave activity. They also strap small motion sensors on certain points of the infants body to record their movements.
Then, Pepe’s team members interact with the infants, playing with toys and performing other social communication tasks while recording the infant’s brain activity. After recording the movements and brain activity of these freely-behaving infants and babies, Pepe’s group can teach computers to recognize certain patterns of brain activity associated with specific social behaviors.
One of the major goals of this work – and of Pepe’s lab group in general – is to reverse engineer the brain to understand how it works. “The more we know about the brain, the more we can design interventions for people with disabilities and maybe also train machines to do tasks that we do. Reverse engineering is a critical part of the development of new technologies,” Pepe explained.
Additionally, by identifying the neural networks related to social communication and interaction, Pepe said this work could help improve diagnosis and treatment techniques for children with autism. “Mapping the pathways of social behaviors would allow us to have a biomarker for autism. This is a noninvasive technique that can be done quickly at the hospital, or even perhaps at home, and if we find it allows us to diagnose autism sooner, maybe we could get better treatments and outcomes.”
For Roth, being involved in such a project has completely changed her perspective on the career path she wants to pursue after high school. “I thought I wanted to do medicine, but this research has allowed me to confirm that I do want to work with brain machine interface techniques. I want to go into an electrical and computer engineering major with maybe a biomed minor so I can do the same work that I’ve been surrounded with all summer,” she said.
According to Pepe, his lab group equally benefits from interacting with bright, young minds. “The role of high school students is important,” Pepe said. “They come with their own fresh ideas. They don’t have any preconceived notions or interpretations of the research, so they can express their thoughts and come up with new ideas that maybe we haven’t thought of yet.”
Although Roth’s internship in Pepe’s lab ended with the start of the fall semester and the new school year, she said she hopes to continue helping out around the lab next summer as she prepares to go into her senior year of high school. According to Pepe, this shouldn’t at all be a problem. “We have always been welcoming students through demonstrations or internships in the lab, and Rachel is definitely always welcome to be one of them,” he said.
While the majority of Pepe’s outreach activities take place here in Houston, he said he never really turns down any opportunity to invite young students into his lab to learn more about his research and STEM in general. In fact, Pepe recently welcomed a group of high school students from Monterrey, Mexico to his lab to learn more about his exoskeleton research and to see this amazing technology in action.
In addition to Pepe’s “open door policy” when it comes to K-12 students, his lab group leads a K-12 outreach program in the Houston area which introduces STEM concepts to young students through fun and engaging activities, like writing computer code to teach robots how to sing and dance.
“Outreach in STEM is important and we need to do it early on, when the cognitive and emotional brain, habits and behaviors are still forming, when you don’t yet have an exact idea of what you want to do or a clear idea of the potential societal impact of research,” said Pepe. “This is very important to me. It’s very important to the university.”
For young students interested in getting involved or helping out in Pepe’s lab, he said there’s only one requirement for working with his team.
“I always tell them, all it takes is commitment. I don’t expect you to know everything about what we do, but I need your commitment to be here and really be proactive and participate and communicate. If you commit, you will persevere and you will be successful,” he said.
Watch our video with Rachel and Pepe describing their research here.