Product Design & Development at the intersection of Engineering and Clinical Research presents an exciting opportunity to apply healthcare technologies to drive social change !

Niveditha Muthukrishnan, our next pathbreaker, doctoral student at the Center for Adaptive Neural Systems at Arizona State University, researches and develops real-time wearable technology based sensory feedback systems that will help people with Parkinson’s disease (PD) to improve their walking and posture.

Niveditha talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about gravitating towards the field of biomechanics & neuroscience driven by her fascination and curiosity for movement generation and controls.

For students, If you want to leverage the power of cross-disciplinary research (engineering+medicine) to give back to the community, taking up a career in biomedical engineering will help you pursue that interest. 

Niveditha, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Born and brought up in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, I was very fortunate to get my K-12 education from P.S. Senior Secondary School where I had immense opportunities to learn, grow academically as well as pursue my interests in Carnatic music, Bharatanatyam, and be a part of girl guides.

Both my parents were very hardworking financial consultants who ran their firm and never missed an opportunity to grow and expand. On the other hand, my brother who is now serving as a Lieutenant Commander in the Indian Navy, taught me how to successfully navigate through lesser known career opportunities. I always attribute my hardworking and venturesome nature to them.  

I always knew I wanted to be a doctor and I told myself each waking day that I will do everything to be one. I pursued science with a specialization in biology in high school and like any aspiring doctor, I attended after school classes to help me prepare for my medical entrance exams. Although that dream did not pan out the way I wanted it to, I think I am very happy with the way I am contributing to the community as a biomedical engineer today. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

Following high school, I completed a bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Engineering, followed by a post-graduate diploma in hospital administration while working for a clinical setup as a Patient Coordinator for 11 months and went on to pursue a thesis based Master of Science in Biomedical Engineering specializing in biomechanics and device design at Arizona State University (ASU). I enjoyed pursuing a research-oriented graduate degree and decided to continue my education and research in neurorehabilitation with a fully-funded PhD in Biomedical Engineering from ASU. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career? 

Following my bachelor’s degree, I did a 1-year post-graduate diploma in hospital administration, while I was working at a clinical setup, to see if that could be a potential direction I could steer my career in. Although I did not have too much work to complain about during those 11 months, I knew I wanted to do more with my degree in biomedical engineering, especially in the line of biomechanics research.

I wanted to further my engineering education and conduct research for a clinical population. 

I will always credit my extended family (uncles and aunts) for their constant push in asking me to pursue a master’s degree in Biomedical Engineering in the USA/Canada as it was still a growing field in India and that I would have more options in the US to do research. This led me to my MS (Thesis) in Biomedical Engineering at ASU where I researched the field of soft-robotics for lower limb rehabilitation in people with stroke.

My passion for research in the field of neurorehabilitation stems from my fascination with the biomechanics & neuroscience underlying movement generation, control, and execution. The fascination for movement stems from my love for Bharatanatyam. I’ve been trained as a classical dancer since I was four years old. So I’ve always had a fascination for movement. It is exciting to pursue a career that brought together my love for movements and the mechanisms of the human body underlying them.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Tell us about your career path

When I decided to pursue a PhD, I was sure I wanted to pursue a combination of engineering and clinical research that involved design, development, and evaluation of a product for a neurodegenerative population. While looking for an opportunity on those lines, I got introduced to my current advisors at the Center for Adaptive Neural Systems at ASU. My advisors have also been instrumental in shaping my interests in Parkinson’s disease research and have constantly encouraged and supported my involvement not only in academics but also to serve on the graduate student council. My research involves the design and development of feedback systems using wearable technology that will help people with Parkinson’s disease to move without falling frequently. My experience at ASU is exactly what I consider very rounded and diverse. I got opportunities to pursue my interests in entrepreneurship for social change, to work for learning communities as part of EdPlus, helping students who enroll through MasterCard foundation, continue my bharatanatyam practice, as well as my passion to advocate for mental and financial wellness for my fellow grad students. 

I have always wanted to try out different options before I decide to settle on something. With this mindset, towards the end of 2020, after defending my proposal, I decided that I wanted to gain exposure working in the real industry as I have never experienced that before. I decided to reach out and network with people from the industry regarding research opportunities for the summer semester. I always wanted to work for a healthcare company to gain perspectives on how good a fit I was for an industry job as well as how much I enjoyed working for industry before I made the big decision on what I will do after my PhD. I secured an internship with Verily (formerly Google life sciences) where I will be working on some of their collaborative research projects. I am quite excited about this opportunity as I will gain first-hand experience in a real research job that will help me decide where I want to be next.

How did you get your first break?

I consider my first research experience as a Master’s student at ASU to be my first big break. It’s that opportunity that motivated and prepared me for my PhD. I enjoyed collaborations with my fellow graduate students in the lab, made use of the resources that the opportunity gave me to apply for my PhD. 

I have always been comfortable with reaching out, networking to get access to different opportunities. I still remember the numerous emails I would send out to various professors in my university to get a volunteer position in their lab to work. I was patient but extremely persistent to gain my first research experience. I have also ventured out of my comfort zone to learn and try different things to enhance my resume.

With my internship opportunity, I will credit it to my exposure as a student council member that gave me the opportunity to reach out to tech professionals to conduct workshops, career talks, etc. Through these, I networked with a lot of people who belong to the companies I dreamed of working following my graduation. My research based on wearable technology also helped me gain the necessary skills that fit well with the internship requirements. 

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: One constant challenge I face is the struggle to find a job and be financially stable especially with immigrant status. Not all jobs offer visa sponsorship for international students. I think what continues to help me the most is LinkedIn networking, attending conferences and job fairs to make contacts, and regularly follow up with them.

Challenge 2: Like many women engineers out there I am still working on winning over the impostor syndrome. I will credit the mentoring circle I have as part of the Biomedical Engineering department at ASU for constantly helping and motivating me. This mentoring circle consists of women professors and PhD students who meet every month and share anything and everything (academically, personally) under the sun, no judgments. We would listen to each other and help in any way we can if asked for. 

Challenge 3: Definitely time management and organization, I tend to get involved in many things and struggle to cope towards the end of my semester and skip breaks, compromise on physical and mental wellness. I have now learned to be more diligent with my time. I have learned to say no to some and prioritized my wellness over participating in activities for school/ for volunteering.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your research

As a doctoral student at the Center for Adaptive Neural Systems, my research focuses on developing a real-time wearable sensory feedback system that will help people with Parkinson’s disease (PD) to improve their walking and posture. When participants are walking, the sensors monitor their instantaneous posture and balance and receive auditory feedback to help them correct any weaknesses in their posture or gait.

Two key aspects of my work that is extremely exciting for me is that I spend 50% of my time developing the product, learning and implementing engineering concepts while the other 50% of my time I spend on clinical population where people with Parkinson’s disease come into the lab and use the system to provide me with data and feedback to improve the product to make it more suitable for use in physical therapy based rehabilitation.

How does your work benefit society?

If you are fond of healthcare (engineering+medicine) and giving back to the community, I think taking up a career in biomedical engineering will help you pursue that interest. 

The wearable technology based system is intended as a rehabilitation tool that Parkinson’s patients can wear at home. Rather than having to drive to a rehab clinic, patients can improve their posture and stride from the comfort of their home. This offers an extremely convenient solution. The long-term plan is to take it closer to home where people with PD can use this and practice without much supervision, without too many complicated systems as well as make it a cost effective option. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

I have enjoyed every day that I get to spend time with PD participants who come into the lab to volunteer for experiments that help with the evaluation of the product or research protocol. Getting their perspectives on how the product should be, their experiences living with PD, how comfortable they feel using the system we have designed, gives me immense happiness along with first-hand insights on how to make the product better and how impactful it can be for them. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Never miss an opportunity, big or small, it will always leave an impact in your life. Also, I have learned that one successful acceptance happens after many many rejections. I have been extremely frustrated, have complained a lot, but never decided to stop applying for the next opportunity. As a graduate student, one thing I wish we all gain is resilience and the ability to enjoy the process of getting to where we want to be. I also recommend you to try different things and take up challenges and always give back to your people and society every time you get a chance.

Another important piece of advice if you want to do a PhD in any field is to find your mentor and friends circle. Moving far away from home has made me realize the importance of having such a circle. They will be the people who will help and support you through ups and downs of your journey apart from your family. 

Future Plans?

I wish to continue working for wearable technology based research to help with movement rehabilitation in the neurodegenerative population. I am also working on building a support group for people with Parkinson’s disease in India where patients and their caretakers can come together to learn, help and be there for each other. This support group will be a place where I wish to take my wearable feedback system to help with their movement rehabilitation in the future.