Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Living in Leuven and Other Alliterative Accidents

Good morning America! Or, in a more accurate summary of my readership, hi Mom! My name is Lydia and I am one of the five Johns Hopkins students interning with the Inter-university MicroElectronics Center (IMEC) this summer through the Institute for NanoBioTechnology (INBT). I just finished my undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering (BME) and will be starting my Master’s in robotics this fall.

As someone who always wanted to study abroad, applying for the INBT internship program with IMEC wasn’t a hard decision. I’ve worked with robotic prosthetic limbs in the past and am hugely fascinated by the idea of interfacing the human nervous system with machines; I probably read a bit too much science fiction as a child. I was therefore thrilled to find out that I would be working with a new electroencephalography (EEG) headset for the summer. EEG is a non-invasive way to record brain signals. While it can be used to record all kinds of signals, I am most interested in how it could be applied to interpret motor intentions (i.e., this change of voltage indicates my desire to wiggle my robot hand). The headset I’m working with for the summer uses only four dry electrodes and can be easily put on and taken off quickly, so it could potentially be used in real-world settings outside the lab.

However, using dry electrodes instead of the more common gel-based ones comes with drawbacks. So far the headset can only distinguish between two motor classes, left and right. My goal for the summer is to introduce at least one more state, no movement, so the headset can also tell when no command is being sent.

I officially started with the rest of the interns on June 2, but in actuality, that first half week was dedicated to finding internet passwords, hunting down grocery stores and passing safety training. This week the work began for real. Reading someone else’s code is always a tricky business, so it wasn’t until this last Thursday that I really started changing things and trying new approaches. I had brief delusions of grandeur on Friday and thought I had solved the whole problem in my first week; not surprisingly, that did not happen. On the bright side, I still have something to work on for the next nine weeks.

Outside of work, Leuven looks so different from any American town I’ve ever seen. From an infrastructure perspective, the streets are narrower and the bike lanes are wider; from a historical perspective, more than half the buildings are older than the country I was born in. Fortunately I’ve met some really great people who have shown me and the other students around on our recently rented bikes. I share an office with Eric, a PhD student from Beijing, who took us on a bike tour of the city last weekend. We also went out to dinner twice this week, first with Lakyn Mayo’s lab (Lakyn being another INBT-IMEC intern), then with some other interns we met. It’s a really beautiful place to work, and I’m looking forward to exploring more.

Lydia Carroll is a 21-year-old biomedical engineer on her first excursion to the European mainland. In her free time she enjoys taking things apart, putting them back together, volunteering with the Maryland SPCA, and reading any paperback novel she can get her hands on. 

Lakyn and me after a night exploring Oude Maarkt.
Eric, our volunteer tour guide, showing us the KU Leuven library.

The convent in the center of Leuven. Built in the 1200s, for centuries it was one of the only places women could come and be educated. It now serves as dorms for one of the many local universities.  

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