While all of my research projects contribute to engineering the tools of scientific discovery, they relate to biological research in different ways. They have taught me much about the process of both basic science and engineering research, and showed me how much we still have to learn about diseases in the human body.
I began my research journey in neuroscience by investigating drosophila models of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and glaucoma. These models are genetically engineered fruit flies containing a mutant version of a human gene, optineurin (OPTN), expressed in neurons and glial cells. I learned basic skills such as Western Blotting, genotyping, and RT-PCR, in addition to understanding more about autophagy and stress response pathways. Testing disruptions in these pathways provide a deeper look at the mechanisms of neurodegeneration involved in ALS and glaucoma, which lead to the wildly different outcomes motor disfunction and blindness, respectively. I have continued to work on this project over the past three years.
My interests in both engineering and eye disease led me to conduct a collaboration project between a neuroscience lab and a biophotonics lab. I used a homebuilt simultaneous optical coherence tomography (OCT) and fluorescence (FL) imaging system to observe neurodegeneration in different ages of N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA)-treated mice. This project allowed me to explore imaging systems through troubleshooting and improving the optics and motors in the OCT-FL system. Additionally, I learned about the anatomy of an eye and the pathology of neurodegeneration in the eye by studying both the neurons in fluorescent images and the retinal layers in OCT images.
3. Development of a dual modality gastrointestinal imaging capsule to stratify risk for esophageal cancer
During the summer between junior and senior year, I interned at Massachusetts General Hospital in an optics lab that was working on developing an alternative to endoscopy for detecting esophageal cancer. This alternative was a swallowable OCT imaging capsule that could be pulled back up through the esophagus; it would take only 5 minutes and eliminate the need for anesthesia. The technology was incredible, but it was still not as accurate as histological examination for cancer risk stratification. I proposed adding fluorescent imaging capabilities to the capsule to visualize molecular responses seen in cancer development before structural changes take place. To do so, I built a new type of capsule and a fluorescent module compatible with the existing OCT system, and tested it on swine tissue. I will be returning to Boston to continue this project and bring it to clinic.
4. Dynamic Focusing Spiral Scan OCT for High Resolution, Wide Field Corneal and Anterior Chamber Imaging
My current project is building an OCT system with a novel method of scanning the human cornea and anterior chamber that has more uniform resolution than traditional methods. This will reduce patient imaging time in clinical ophthalmology and enable clearer visualization during surgeries. While OCT is high resolution (micron range), its short depth of focus presents a challenge for imaging a human cornea which is curved over a depth of about 4 mm. This new method dynamically focuses to the plane of the cornea during a spiral scan radiating from the apex of the cornea. I am currently building the system and configuring the dynamic focusing equations for isotropic sampling. I will also image a human eye and reconstruct the images using MATLAB.