Four women faculty members join forces on sensor project
Underrepresentation of women in engineering occupations underscores the uniqueness of an organically-formed, interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Missouri College of Engineering and School of Medicine.
Four engineering faculty members and an associate professor of family and community medicine are partnering on a grant proposal for a project to create a sensor to measure stress levels. All five principal investigators happen to be women: Shubhra Gangopadhyay, C.W. LaPierre Endowed Chair Professor of electrical and computer engineering; Sheila Grant, professor of bioengineering; Richelle Koopman, associate professor of family and community medicine; Marjorie Skubic, professor of electrical and computer engineering; and Alina Zare, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering.
The goal of the proposal is to secure funding for a wearable sensor that interacts with a smartphone to give real-time updates on stress and hydration levels. The team plans to accomplish this by testing the cortisol and sodium levels in a person’s perspiration. Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal gland and typically is released in response to stress, though it also can be equated with low blood sugar. At present, testing stress levels via cortisol requires a lengthy process.
“The way it is, you have to take a swab, take saliva, send it to the lab, and it takes weeks to get the measurement. Your stress level changes so much, when you get data in two weeks, it’s not useful,” Gangopadhyay said.
The hope is that the system also will take into account context — temperature, environment, humidity, activity level, medical history and more — to provide a very personalized picture for people in high-risk situations.
“We’re looking at a different cross-section of groups that this could really help,” Skubic said. “Certainly people that work in extreme environments like firefighters, soldiers, athletes, but also people that are at risk because they’re elderly or they have specific types of health conditions that put them at risk. It could cover a high variety of different people.”
Both the project’s initial and future needs covered a high variety of different people, too. Grant and Gangopadhyay, both recently named founding members of the Mizzou Chapter of the National Academy of Inventors, have been frequent collaborators for several years on a variety of biologically-related sensor projects. Skubic’s work with sensors in eldercare technology and health care systems made her a logical partner for this work, as well, and Zare was a natural choice because of her work on machine learning and pattern recognition, which factors into the proposed device’s ability to adapt to conditions and changes. Koopman, a frequent collaborator of Skubic’s, brought the clinical expertise only an M.D. could provide a team of Ph.Ds.
“You reach a point where we have these cool sensors, but now we needed to reach out to these other collaborators, and with Marge and Alina, these people have expertise that Shubhra and I do not have,” Grant said.
“And then there’s the potential for developing algorithms and methods that make use of these sensors,” Zare said. “And there’s this potential for this back and forth [sharing of information].”
The team formed organically based on these areas of expertise. Nobody set out to put together a team of female investigators simply for gender’s sake. Trying to force collaborations for collaboration’s sake typically doesn’t result in the kind of achievement more organically-formed collaborations do.
“It wasn’t contrived,” Skubic said. “We needed people that have expertise in these different areas, and it sort of naturally unfolded that way, which is the way it should be.”
They know the pitfalls of less natural collaborations because they’ve seen those pitfalls firsthand. It’s bound to happen when you work in research areas that require frequent interdisciplinary relationships. Sometimes, researchers find out after beginning the project that getting the information they need from their various partners isn’t the smooth sailing they expected, and sometimes personalities just don’t mesh well for a variety of reasons.
“It’s an acquired process,” Grant said. “You learn fairly quickly who will collaborate well and who won’t collaborate well.”
This team, however, has no such issues with balance. As with any good collaboration, you have to know your strengths and your weaknesses. And this group has the potential to parlay those strengths into a engineering and medical breakthrough.
“We’re all in different research areas, so we all have research questions we’re pursuing in our own areas,” Zare said. “But we’re relying on each other to get support to pursue them. So there’s this important balance on the team to be able to recognize that no one’s on the team to provide support to just one person; we’re all giving and taking from each other.”
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