Justin Watson left and Michael R. Dawson right
From devising solutions that help amputees in their daily lives, to designing eye tracking software for driving simulators with the goal of decreasing car crashes, to enhancing treatments for pelvic fractures, to many other important research aims, the Dean’s Research Award (DRA) program offers undergraduate mechanical engineering students the opportunity to participate in research that makes a difference.
The program is open to all fulltime engineering students who have a GPA of at least 3.2, beginning in their second year of studies, and allows students to conduct research under the supervision of leading university researchers in a variety of fields.
“Our research has the potential to help people in their day-to-day lives,” said second year mechanical engineering biomedical student Justin Watson, whose DRA research project this past semester involved the development of a sensor for the Myoelectric Training Tool (MTT), a robotic arm that trains amputees to operate a prosthetic device.
The MTT, which is currently being developed by U of A Research Associate Michael R. Dawson, will be mounted inside an amputee’s prosthetic limb to relay both a sense of touch and the corresponding grip strength the person applies to an object.
“This will make operating a prosthetic arm or hand easier and more intuitive,” said Watson, whose research was jointly supervised by Dawson and Professor Jason Carey.
“I am proud I was able to participate in ongoing research at the University of Alberta,” Watson said.“This opportunity has exposed me to new technologies and helped me develop my ability to work independently and with others.
“The DRA project that Justin performed exceeded my expectations. He put in a lot of effort over the course of the DRA and the end result is I have a working mechanism I can use in future experiments with amputees,” said Dawson.
“The DRA program not only gives students a chance to find out what it is like to work in a research setting, but the experience is also valuable to researchers in that the student’s work can help contribute to our research,” Dawson added.
“The DRA program is a wonderful opportunity to broaden horizons, and a valuable experience that allows students to get exposed to the world of research and work closely with professors,” agreed second year mechanical engineering student Kira Toxopeus.
Under Professor Reinhard Vehring, Toxopeus has been involved in setting up, testing, and trouble shooting a system to create monodisperse microdroplets. “The creation of these droplets is important to the understanding of how the rapid evaporation process of microdroplets affects their structure, shape, and ultimately the way they interact with the human body,” she explained.
“The DRA has allowed me to explore topics that are not classically covered in my degree, and I enjoy the multidisciplinary nature of the work I am doing,” Toxopeus said, adding her research involves mechanical engineering, biomedical-materials engineering, nano-particle engineering, and pharmaceutical sciences.
Meanwhile, for Brandon Kwong a third year mechanical engineering co-op student whose ambition following graduation is to pursue further engineering studies and a career in biomedical engineering, participating in a DRA is a “chance to get to know professors, as well as a gateway to graduate studies or a career in research.”
“A DRA allows undergrads to get involved in research quite easily; it is a great program,” said Kwong whose DRA project under Professor Kajsa Duke involved verifying a new, custom-made plate for improved pelvic fracture fixations. He said the most valuable aspect of his experience was the mentorship he received from Duke. “She cares for her students,” he said.
“The DRA program is a great program that gives students valuable research experience. Having the opportunity to explore new, groundbreaking research under some of the best professionals in the field is invaluable,” added fellow mechanical biomedical engineering student Chelsea Morin.
Under Professor Jin-Oh Hahn, Morin’s DRA project involves designing eye tracking software for driving simulators. “The software will track the driver’s gaze in order to accurately overlap the gaze direction with the video feed of the simulator, and output where the driver is looking and what the driver is looking at. It will also be able to indicate driver fatigue and distractedness,” she explained.
“Tracking driver fatigue and distractedness has the potential to prevent motor vehicle crashes due to fatigue and distractedness in the future.”
Morin said her inspiration for participating in a DRA project came from watching her two young cousins battle health challenges and “essentially grow up in the hospital.”
“Knowing I have the potential to help people in situations like theirs in the future motivates me to work hard and learn as much as I can in school,” she said. “I feel privileged such a program exists at the U of A and that I had to opportunity to participate in it.”