We're a little crazy, about science!

Day 315: Neural Engineering in a pandemic

pandemic PPE

For the past week or so my PI has been away, so I’ve had the chance to work on other projects from home. Unfortunately he returns this week so I’ve got to switch gears from protests, working from home, and undergrad mentoring back to experiments and experimental setup. As the senior student in the lab, I’ve got a lot of responsibilities.

First and foremost the lab I am in is a research lab, located inside a research hospital. That means we get all the fun of a regular hospital (IE COVID-19 cases) along with the responsibilities of experimenting. Because we work with human subjects, we need to recruit them and make sure everything runs smoothly when they arrive.

All the equipment should be prepped, organized, tested, and ready to go when the subject arrives. This takes more time than you would think, so I like to arrive an hour early for setup and testing, even then it sometimes is pushing it. There are stickers to be placed on sensors, equipment to lay out, software to get ready, etc. Doing all of this is time consuming, doing this while being mindful of what you’re touching makes it even harder.

Experiments usually last about an hour once we get started, but there is sensor placement on the subject, which takes about an hour. Then because we use electrical stimulation we need to test the subjects tolerance to the stimulus and determine the intensity of the stimulus. Stimulus intensity is firmly based on the subject, there is no predetermined setting so it takes time to find the correct value. This process takes roughly an hour.

So an hour for setup with the subject, an hour for “exploration” with the stimulus, and another hour for the actual test. Yep, we ask our subjects to be ready for a roughly three hour block of time. Then I have setup and teardown in between experiments, so total for me is roughly five hours per experiment. The fun starts when you have multiple experiments on the same day, those days we can run from sunup to sundown. As in a 7am to 9pm type situation in the rare cases where we have three experiments in one day.

Before the pandemic hit, we had three experiments per day, three to four days a week because we had a visiting researcher and we wanted to get all the data collected. I had just had surgery too (like literally the day after), so that made it fun. Note, I didn’t have to go in, but I wanted to be there. Always prioritise your health, I had minor shoulder surgery, so while I couldn’t do much with the arm, I could still be present to watch and learn.

The data processing part is where we finally get to see what happened during an experiment. We get an idea while the experiment is happening, but this is where we get the full picture. Sometimes it’s good news, other times we’re confused as to why something happened or didn’t happen. Data processing takes FOREVER. One experiment with a single subject can produce enough data that I’m busy for a whole day afterwards and maybe even longer if it is an experiment with even more data collection than our usual experiments. If we use EEG for example, we can spend a week easily just sorting through that data. fMRI data takes forever as well and that’s on top of the computational expense, fMRI data is particularly computationally expensive because of the way we analyse the data.

Maybe it sounds like I’m complaining, but I really enjoy the work. In fact, I’m designing and setting up my own round of experiments for my PhD proposal defense, which should be this winter (as in December-ish of this year). My CO-PI signed off on my purchase request, which was very generous considering it cost more than the equipment I ordered for the lab specifically, so we’re about to dive into the unknown that is my research question.

It’s a high risk, high reward type project, but I don’t like doing any other type of research. It could literally change a lot of people’s lives and open the door to a whole lot of new technology. So in short, I’m optimistic that it will work because I want it to work really badly.

Unfortunately, I can’t share yet what that is, but if it pans out and we publish then I will (of course) write about it. If it doesn’t work, then I will still write about it, but we won’t be publishing anything. Null results matter and even if the results exist solely in my blog. I hope that if my experiment fails it will at least inform future researchers who have the same question.


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