Reverse Engineering the Brain
From Breaking Stereotypes to Learning Biomarkers of Lou Gherig’s Disease, Computer Engineering Student Forges Her Own Path
Tavara Freeman took apart her first computer when she was 12 years old. Her parents always encouraged her to pursue her curiosity, and she wanted to know what made the machine work.
“My mom pushed learning and loved for me to explore,” Freeman, who is from Mountain Home, said. “We had a computer, and I just wanted to know how it worked. She let me take it apart and put it back together.”
Freeman’s curiosity grew from there. At age 15, she built her own PC from scratch, using YouTube tutorials as a guide. Then, the summer before her freshman year at the University of Idaho, Freeman used the website Codecademy to teach herself the Python programming language.
Now a junior majoring in computer engineering at U of I, Freeman is sharing her passion with elementary and middle school students in hopes of expanding diversity in STEM fields.
As a woman of color, the task is vital to Freeman, whose outreach efforts are funded by prize money she received as a winner of the 2016 Grand Challenge Scholars Program Pitch Event held by the College of Engineering.
Realizing Her Minority Status
The statistics for women and minorities in engineering are bleak. According to the Computing Research Association, more than 84 percent of undergraduates nationwide who major in computer science are men.
A 2010 study done by the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) revealed that only 1.1 percent of black college freshmen entered the engineering field that year. According to the American Society for Engineering Education, the percentage of African-Americans among U.S. engineering bachelor’s degree recipients has been declining for more than a decade.
Freeman wants to turn things around. As a freshman, she joined U of I’s chapter of NSBE. With the group, she participated in an outreach mission to a Spokane after-school program to expose children to STEM projects. The experience inspired the outreach component of her Grand Challenge Pitch Event project.
“A significantly disproportionate percentage of African-American students by fourth grade don’t like math. And if you don’t like math, you’re not likely to pursue STEM,” Freeman said. “I realized that if no one when you’re younger says you can do it and shows you the opportunities of STEM, you’re less likely to enter STEM. Simple things like tutoring can help students see opportunities that are available to them.”
Using Computer Skills to Save Lives
Freeman is also using her prize money as a Grand Challenge Scholars Program winner to work with biological engineering Assistant Professor Bryn Martin in his Neurophysiological Imaging Lab (NIML). She’s conducting research on early indicators of ALS, or Lou Gherig’s disease — a neurodegenerative disease that affects the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord and causes eventual death. In the U.S., more than 5,600 people are diagnosed with the disease each year. Once detected, most people die within two to five years.
Freeman is studying cerebrospinal fluid as a biomarker of the disease, as it surrounds the central nervous tissue where ALS is located and is responsible for circulating nutrients and chemicals throughout the brain while removing waste, she explained.
Specifically, Freeman is studying the MRI images of ALS patients who were petitioned by her and her lab mates to take part in a study at Inland Imaging in Spokane. The computer engineering student is re-creating the various cerebrospinal fluid geometries in a software application called ITK Snap, which allows researchers to segment images from MRIs and more easily study them pixel by pixel, without other features in the way.
Freeman then combines these segmentations into an entire spinal column using a 3-D computer graphics software tool. Another student in the lab created code that allows the NIML team to manipulate and study the hydrodynamic characteristics of the fluid.
Ultimately, the goal is to assess whether cerebrospinal fluid geometries and flow velocities are early indicators of ALS, thereby giving medical practitioners the ability to catch the disease sooner.
“I’m fascinated by how this is something we can do in the lab that would have significant improvements on someone’s life,” Freeman said. “It’s a disease that’s not curable yet, so any research helps to potentially find a cure or even engineer a better drug for ALS.”