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Scholars

Sean McDowell

2014-15 Goldwater Scholar

Hometown: Stevensville, Michigan

Colleges: College of Engineering and Honors College

Major:  Biomedical Engineering

Congratulations! Were you surprised?

Absolutely! I mean, I was definitely hopeful and liked my chances at getting the scholarship, but I was still surprised when I got the email.

For the Goldwater application you must submit a research proposal.  Will you briefly describe yours?

Current motor prostheses don’t offer much in the way of sensory feedback, making it more difficult to perform tasks like picking up a glass of water or throwing a ball. My study would try to address this by using non-human primates to correlate an electrical stimulation through an implanted neuroprosthesis to a natural sensation, like a poke, brush, or tap. By optimizing the parameters of electrical stimulation, you could try to determine the most mimetic electrical stimulation to match the physical sensation. My hope is that the results could be translated over to human patients, allowing for a wider range of sensory feedback and easier control when using a prosthesis.

The dramatic increase in awareness of the need for better prosthetics was fueled by injured soldiers coming out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. How do you think this research interest will be sustained on a national level, post-Iraq/Afghanistan?

Unfortunately, there’s always going to be a need for prosthetic limbs, whether the limb was lost by traumatic injury or was amputated due to complications with diabetes. Although there’s been a lot of innovation in the field, we are nowhere close to matching the function of a natural limb. This means there are a lot of opportunities for improvement, both in the mechanical side of a motor prosthesis and with the neural interface of a neuroprosthesis.

Where do you see prosthetics research heading long-term?

Again, I really believe that making the prostheses more like natural limbs is the future for this field. We need motor prostheses that provide sensory feedback and allow for fine motor control. Personally, I would love to be able to see someone with a prosthetic arm that could give them enough control to play a piano or catch a Frisbee.

Where did you find the opportunity to conduct undergraduate research at Purdue?

My undergraduate research opportunity came through the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships program.

Which faculty members supported you?

I performed research for Dr. Kevin Otto, who is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences as well as in the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering. I worked with two different graduate students in Dr. Otto’s NeuroProstheses Research Laboratory, studying the use of implantable microelectrode arrays for stimulating and recording neurons in the brain.

What advice do you have for freshman/sophomores who will start their Goldwater applications this coming fall semester?

Never be afraid to pursue your passion. Even if the research you do now isn’t exactly what you want to do in the future, chances are you’ll find a way to tie the two together. Although my previous research experience has been more in neural engineering, I still find myself drawn to prosthetic limbs. This really forced me to consider how to combine the two areas of research.

What about advice on writing a Goldwater application?

Start early and do a ton of editing! As much as you might like first (or second, or third) drafts of your essays, you’re going to find a lot of ways to improve them. Also, like I said before, pursue your passion in every aspect of the application. It’ll make your writing much stronger.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Just a big thank you to all the people who helped me get to this point! I never would have considered applying for this scholarship if I didn’t have people like Dr. Emily Allen, Veronica Schirm, and many others giving me the confidence and the resources to receive this honor.