Research Experiences Recognized with Goldwater Scholarship
As a freshman in the explore program, Spencer Lake Jacobs-Skolik, E’22, electrical engineering, knew that he wanted to be involved in neuroscience. He quickly realized that to study neuroscience, he’d probably need to go to grad school. And before grad school, he’d need to be involved in research. With these goals in mind, Jacobs-Skolik seized a plethora of experiences, leading him to be awarded the prestigious 2021 Barry Goldwater Scholarship, the United States premier award for outstanding young researchers in STEM fields.
It all started when Electrical Engineering Professor Deniz Erdoğmuş’s research and his Cognitive Systems Lab stood out to Jacobs-Skolik. Despite being two years of classes and one co-op short of Erdoğmuş’s requirements for undergraduate researchers, Jacobs-Skolik decided to reach out. Erdoğmuş allowed him to sit in on the research group’s meetings.
“For about a semester, I just attended meetings for this project called the Hands Project, which was developing more advanced prosthetic hands,” Jacobs-Skolik said. “One of the collaborator labs, the Movement Neuroscience lab, was looking for more undergraduate engineers, which opened an opportunity for me. Since then, I’ve been working jointly on various different projects between those two labs.”
His first project in the lab studied the Hoffman reflex a muscle’s reaction to electric stimulation. “You know, where the doctors hit your knee with a hammer and you kick them? Yeah, it’s like that. But if the current you’re stimulating with is too high, you’ll get this phenomenon called antidromic collision, where the signal that travels down the nerve and the signal that travels up the nerve into the central nervous system will collide with each other, and you’ll see a suppression of the Hoffman reflex as well as an overall greater direct stimulation of the muscle, which we call the M-wave. The shape of that plot of muscle response versus stimulation intensity can be a really useful tool for determining where along the brain-to-movement pipeline the neural deficit is occurring,” he said.
For his next project, Jacobs-Skolik utilized electromyography (EMG) to help design more useful prosthetics. “We took EMG from eight muscles below the wrist and eight muscles above the wrist. And we used this mathematical technique called non-negative matrix factorization to determine some information on co-activation patterns between muscles…What we were able to do is take the co-activation patterns between muscles in the upper arm and hand in the left limb and then combine those with the activations of muscles only in the upper arm of the right limb to try to predict the activations of muscles in the right hand, despite having no information on the right hand.”
In other words, Jacobs-Skolik is trying to figure out the fundamental mechanisms of how to design prosthetics that will respond to nerve impulses as if they are real limbs and his research was published in the Journal of Human Kinetics. He said he was inspired by previous research he had done in the nervous system’s recovery from strokes.
His latest research project examines how to more efficiently detect ALS in patients. Patients with ALS often have very little time between diagnosis and death due to the rapid advancement of the disease. Jacobs-Skolik is designing a machine-learning algorithm that will automatically analyze cortical silent periods, an EMG pattern commonly examined to determine the presence of neurological issues. This process is normally performed by hand by a doctor who takes days or weeks to complete the analysis.
Jacobs-Skolik also completed a co-op at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, where he conducted spinal cord injury recovery research. His main project involved developing a new way to measure the movements of patients with spinal cord injuries. Patients currently have their gait examined with motion capture markers to understand how their bodies are healing. Setting up for a motion capture video can be extremely time-consuming and can be taxing for patients who have difficulty standing up for any period of time. For the project, Jacobs-Skolik helped apply a series of algorithms that can predict and track human movement without the use of markers.
“We’re trying to use neural networks to do markerless motion capture…so you don’t have to put on all of these physical markers” Jacobs-Skolik said.
Looking ahead, Jacobs-Skolik wants to continue to perform research in neuro-engineering, rehabilitation, and augmentation. Specifically, he wants to better apply neuro-engineering research to practical settings. “With EMG, EKG, even MRI scans, we’re interfacing with our nervous system. We’re really just beginning to learn the significance of all of the information we generate with these signals,” he said.
Independent of whichever project he is currently working on, Jacobs-Skolik said he feels like he’s found a perfect career path in this field. “I love feeling like a scientist. And I love the everyday of doing science.”