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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, April 14, 2024

Engineering professor wins grant for neuroscience research and STEM diversity

Biomedical Engineering Professor Brian Timko uses a National Science Foundation award to study lab-grown brain tissues and promote diversity in his field.

The Science and Engineering Complex on the Medford/Somerville campus is pictured.

The Science and Engineering Complex is pictured.

Dr. Brian Timko, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, received the Faculty Early Career Development Program Award from the National Science Foundation this summer to support his research into the effect of bioelectronic devices embedded in lab-grown brain tissues.

The accolade supports faculty early in their careers who have demonstrated the potential to act as academic role models and facilitate advancements in their respective organizations. With $500,000 in NSF CAREER Award funding, Timko intends to advance the field of neuroscience through bioelectronics and support students from groups historically underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math fields.

The human brain contains approximately 100 billion neurons and 1000 times more neural connections, making them extremely difficult to model in a lab setting, Timko told the Daily. Current conventional electrophysiological tools only allow scientists to sample one neuron at a time for fifteen minutes before it eventually dies.

“The broader goal of our lab is to develop systems that can achieve two-way electronic interfaces with these models with the underlying hypothesis that if we have enough of these [bioelectronic] devices … we can decode the information in those neural networks, or embed new information,” Timko said.

Timko aims to use the funds to answer how neuroscience can promote diversity in engineering. He hopes to introduce the field of neuroscience to underrepresented minority high school students by actively engaging them in fun experiments that will inspire them to learn more about engineering or other STEM fields.

“We’re going to develop a one week summer program that will be free for the students to attend,” he said. “They’ll measure electrophysiology signals from their muscles or something fairly straightforward, but it’ll be some opportunity for them to do some actual science in the classroom.”

The other half of the program, according to Timko, is an undergraduate research program where students spend half of their time working on a research project and the other half helping facilitate the high school program and connect Tufts with the Medford community.

You have some benefit on both sides for the students who are in the program and for the students or who are helping to run the program,” Timko said. “We would, for the students in the [undergraduate] program, give preference to underrepresented students.”

Mafalda Gueta, associate director of diversity and inclusion programs for the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, was “instrumental in designing the educational plan for this proposal,” Timko said, adding that he is very grateful for Gueta’s input in framing the program.

“I think this serves as an opportunity to provide students in the Medford area with more exposure to specialized areas of STEM in an intentional manner,” Gueta said. “Generally speaking, there are not always the resources available to get students in front of specialized areas of STEM, so students may not be aware of what kinds of careers or research they can pursue when they go to college.”

Dr. Ethan Danahy, research associate professor and leader of the Justice-based Engineering and Data Science Initiative, also collaborated directly with Timko in a push to include socio-technical concepts in the Introduction to Computing for Engineering course.

We want our engineers to be thinking about these things critically, and in terms of the solutions that they’re developing, the ways in which computing is being used, because it has huge societal impacts,” Danahy said. “All of us are going through these thoughtful journeys as we re-examine how we teach, how we learn and our impact on society, especially through the lens of a DEIJ perspective.”

Five engineering professors, including Danahy and Timko, have been appointed to teach Introduction to Computing for Engineering, a course integrating socio-technical concepts early in engineering education at Tufts. This course gives first-year engineering students the opportunity to recognize and discuss the societal impact of their work, the inequities that exist in the field of engineering and what they can do as students to resolve and combat these challenges.

“We have the data that shows that historically, [minority] folks are dropping out of engineering, nationally, and we see it even internally here at Tufts,” Danahy said. “What we wanted to do is make sure that as we work to change our admissions, we see changes in the demographics of our incoming class, in terms of the number of women, the number of underrepresented minorities, etc. We want to make sure that also our curriculum is recognizing that and changing to be supportive of other perspectives.”