The brief life of a newborn only known as “Baby A” made a profound impact on Ashley Taylor, who encountered the premature infant while shadowing at a neonatal intensive care unit as part of Virginia Tech’s Scieneering program.
“I was bothered that the baby hadn’t been named yet. The doctor told me the parents left the baby after birth. Besides the nurses, she had never been held. The baby was slowly dying because her lungs were underdeveloped,” said Taylor, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering from Fort Chiswell, Va..
“It was a critical point in my life. If someone could make this baby a pair of lungs, she would be fine. I was heartbroken because I knew the baby was going to die and I couldn’t help. I blacked out and almost hit the floor. I was just so overwhelmed by the sadness of the situation.”
At first, Taylor was upset her emotions took over. She was there for a research project to better understand the size of premature infants. “Then I realized sometimes you can’t really separate your emotions from work. Sometimes you have to let things get to you to develop a passion,” she said.
Her 2011 summer research project turned into one that’s still going. “I decided it wasn’t about making a poster for a symposium or putting it on my resume,” she said. “Research is about doing something with science or technology that helps someone, like that baby, using your knowledge to help people have better lives.”
Taylor is among more than 70 students enrolled in the Scieneering program at Virginia Tech, which is funded through a prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute Science Education Grant. Building on Virginia Tech’s strength in engineering and science, the program offers students innovative interdisciplinary coursework and research opportunities.
Scieneers can pursue one of two minors through the program. Students receive a fellowship, as well as money to purchase supplies for a research project, which is required for at least one semester. Many students decide to work longer on their project or take on a new one for additional research credit.
Students enrolled as of fall 2012 represent 23 majors in the College of Engineering, College of Science, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, College of Natural Resources and Environment, and Pamplin College of Business.
Soon after Taylor’s acceptance into the program in 2011, she discovered a project of interest through Al Wicks, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Wicks serves on the board of directors for the Pediatric Medical Device Institute in Roanoke, Va., with the institute’s director, Dr. Andre A. Muelenaer Jr., associate professor of pediatrics at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and adjunct professor at Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Science.
Wicks and Muelenaer set out to develop an electronic sensor that can help detect signs of cerebral palsy in infants. Currently, diagnosis is expensive, subjective, and often inaccurate until a child is 4 or 5 years old.
Working for the project, Taylor is building accelerometers that can be attached to a baby’s limbs and a computer program that can read and track the movements from those sensors. She also synched a video camera to the computer program to allow for further analysis.
Taylor is working on the project with Benjamin Cragun, a third-year medical student at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. Cragun received specialized training to identify movements exhibited by babies with cerebral palsy. “He can go through the video with me so we can pinpoint suspect movements in the computer program data,” Taylor said. “Then we can make a mathematical model for what the movements look like in the data.”
The device would allow doctors who have not received the specialized training to detect cerebral palsy symptoms the capability to recognize when a baby may need further testing. Diagnosis at a younger age will allow treatments such as physical therapy to start earlier to improve quality of life.
“The idea of being able to use what I was learning to directly help babies — something that I could relate to so personally that was sweet and innocent — was a huge breakthrough for me,” Taylor said.
A small pilot study on healthy babies is being completed during fall 2012. The group anticipates expanding the test in spring 2013. The ultimate goal is to have the device in hospitals and clinics to help doctors diagnose cerebral palsy earlier on in children’s lives.
“I had no idea what the Scieneering program would become — that it would be my passion in college and direct my career path,” Taylor said. “It helped me find my place in mechanical engineering.”
Student Ashley Taylor demonstrates the device to help detect cerebral palsy in infants to medial students at the Virginia Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine.
One of Ashley Taylor’s mentors, Dr. Andre A. Muelenaer Jr., is featured in a recent Virginia Tech Magazine article. While a student at Virginia Tech, former Professor Leon Arp mentored Muelenaer to use research to create life-saving medical devices. Now, Muelenaer is doing the same with students such as Taylor.
Ashley Taylor was the first student who turned in an application to the Scieneering program at Virginia Tech. The university received the $1.4 million award from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to start the program in summer 2010. The first cohort of Scieneers — 24 including Taylor — began the program in summer 2011.
The next round of applications will be accepted from Nov. 26, 2012, to March 8, 2013.
“One of the cool things about the Scieneering program is that it’s not a cookie-cutter approach,” Ashley Taylor said. “It’s a glimpse at the big picture when you look at the diversity of projects Scieneers are researching. But they are all about making the world a better place, from all of the different angles.”
Check out some of the other featured research stories on Scieneering students:
Students who participated in the 2012 Summer Research Symposium compiled videos on why they love the Scieneering Program.
This video highlights the 2012 Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium
Take a look back at previous Spotlight features in our archive.