Award interview and project update
Yesterday was the big interview between my school-PI, surgeon-PI, and myself. It was significantly longer than I expected it to be, but it was also strangely focused on me. That was completely unexpected, so I felt a little awkward, but I did it and we’re all very excited to start my project. I have some thoughts about the interview, but I also realized I haven’t really spoke about my “super secret” technique in a while so some of the newer followers may not even know what I’m talking about (don’t worry, it’s a super secret).
A quick introduction since life seems to be moving particularly quickly at the moment. I’m a (now!) fourth year PhD candidate in neuroengineering. My BS and MS are mechanical engineering, and as always I want to point out those are two very different fields. Trust me, the transition was… rough. My research focus is on how the spinal cord communicates with the brain. Specifically how that communication changes when there has been spinal cord injury. The hope is to find ways to better treat spinal cord injury, restore function, and to improve classification of injury. Currently we use the ASIA scale (here) and it’s very broad. It works, but I hope we can do better, which should improve treatments and create a more personalized recovery. Spinal cord injury is very person specific, no two are the same, so improving the way we classify injury should match that personalization, in my opinion anyway.
So what is my “super secret” technique anyway? I can’t tell you… yet. The end is nigh though! Fear not, for the “super secret” technique will be revealed soon, soooooooon. In the meantime what I can talk about is the history of my little brain baby. The story starts just a few months after I started my PhD, I had my idea. It felt obvious to me and even now I’m worried others have tried, failed, and never spoke of it. There’s no journal of null results, so I honestly don’t know if my highly novel idea is actually all that novel.
When I realized this “obvious” gap existed and I couldn’t find any literature on the technique I’ve come up with, I decided to give it a shot to see if it was even remotely possible. For my qualifying exam I designed a pilot experiment to test this technique to see if we found anything useful or if it was just complete garbage. It was an n of 1 study, which is never a good thing, but it was a feasibly test and a milestone for my degree, not a rigorous study. I had no idea what I would find or if I would even find anything, but it turns out it worked. It worked incredibly well! So well, I’m worried that I screwed something up and what I found isn’t real, but to this day I haven’t found a single way I could’ve screwed it up since we had used two methods to verify it was working, my new technique and a different established technique. They both matched and I’m excited to be able to share what that looks like soon.
I did my qualifying exam about two years ago (almost exactly now). Right before the pandemic hit… Since then my technique has sat on the back burner so to speak. We have tried it since then with other people and I’ve had various levels of success using it in different settings (not the same experiment). The results and semi-successes have made me question if my original findings are valid. However, I’ve never redone the same experiment, so it’s honestly hard to say for sure if that’s the case or not. I want to believe that there wasn’t some sort of fluke in the first experiment, but we won’t know until we repeat the experiment, which brings us pretty much up to speed.
A few months ago I wrote a grant proposal with the two PI’s I mentioned (since I now have three…) and the grant would fund my research to do this exact experiment in a large group of people. Best of all, we would apply the technique to the target population! We would be working with 10 neurologically intact participants and 15 participants with spinal cord injury. The project got funded based on the very interesting pilot data I had.
Yesterday we had our little joint hospital and school PR meeting for the interview. I got to talk about how I came up with the idea, what it means to me, why I think it would be useful, and strangely, I got to do most of the talking. Unlike other government funded grants, this one I was actually included in. Like they took my CV and I was named specifically as someone who would receive funding from the grant. I think that’s part of the reason why I was the focus of the interview, but maybe not. I don’t know how these things work exactly, but I wrote the grant, was named in the grant, and either my school-PI or the interviewer decided the focus should be on me.
Whatever the reason I had a lot more fun doing it than I thought I would. Getting recognition for work I haven’t exactly started yet feels weird, but I’m excited to finally answer the question, “does this actually work?” Which is a question that has kept me up at night for a long time now. Like I said, things are moving quickly. The project should kick off at the beginning of the year, when our new equipment for the project arrives.
I’m not 100% sure when I’ll get the chance to unveil my “super secret” technique, but for now it remains a secret. It won’t for much longer though. The good news is that if it’s a failure, others will know about it (hopefully) and not make the same mistake. If it’s a success, well then I will probably be a little insufferable for awhile as I brag about my super cool findings.
In any case, the future at least looks not too bad, even if I still am dealing with the depression/anxiety/etc. that gets incredibly bad this time of the year, good news like this definitely takes the edge off a little.