Highlighting innovation in neural engineering research, outreach, and education programs
Feature writing at the Center for Neurotechnology, an NSF-funded research center.
Demystifying neural engineering and its impact
From Elon Musk’s company that develops neural interfaces to reports that Facebook’s plan to build a brain-computer interface that lets people type by imaging themselves talking, there have been an increase interest in neurotechnology.
Researchers at the Center for Neurotechnology (CNT), an engineering research center funded by the National Science Foundation, develop technology and devices to help people heal, feel, and move again. More than that, the CNT is dedicated to building neurotechnology and proactively considering its impact on end users and society at large.
I discovered this research center during a presentation by Eric Chudler at a Bioengineering research seminar at the University of Washington, and I was immediately drawn to the center’s focus on interacting with end users and actively considering the ethical implications of their work. I reached out to Wayne Gillam, the director of communications and marketing at the CNT, about my interest in writing about the center’s work. I pitched myself as a communications intern who wanted to write stories about the people behind the research. Now, I get to highlight their education programs, innovative research, and outreach efforts.
Type of Project: Journalistic writing, social media updates, advancement stories
Duration: January 2019 - August 2019; June 2016 - June 2017
• Pitched, wrote, and edit articles about the CNT’s research, education programs, and outreach efforts
• Interviewed engineers, ethicists, and researchers involved in cutting-edge neural engineering research and make their work accessible through writing.
Highlighting neural engineering research and its far-reaching impact:
In this role, I wrote stories for the Engage and Enable Blog on cutting-edge research on brain-computer interface technology and the way that the Center is a leader in this field. In the process, I worked with researchers, engineers, and ethicists and celebrate the work of people in the lab that was often behind-the scenes. With each article, I strived to highlight the goal of a researcher’s project, their motivations, and the impact of this research on neurotechnology users. This ensured that my articles highlighted the people behind the research as well as the CNT’s role as a leader in neural engineering research.
Highlight the people behind the projects
A cornerstone of my writing process is highlighting people’s stories and motivations to contribute to the field of neurotechnology and neural engineering.
When writing an article about Amy Orsborn, a CNT-affiliated faculty member and Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor at the University of Washington (UW), I highlighted the way that her research lab reflected her interdisciplinary education at the intersection of engineering and neuroscience. This reflected the CNT’s work at large, which involves students, researchers, and collaborators from every department from philosophy to bioengineering.
When writing about student researchers who participate in the CNT’s summer research programs, I highlighted their motivations for participating in research. Anna Ohrt, a participant in the CNT’s Young Scholars Program, she was drawn to the way that computer science can create anything from an app to learning software. I highlighted this interest through impactful first-person quotes where Ohrt highlights her motivations to conduct research with the CNT:
Keep it simple
Since neurotechnology is such a cutting-edge and interdisciplinary field, it’s important to distill concepts from the research projects into understandable terms.
In a research article on high data rate and low-power neurotechnology in Matt Reynolds’s Lab at the UW, I started by bringing up the prolific use of radio frequency identification (RFID)
“If you’ve ever scanned a badge, transit pass or entry card, you’ve probably used a well-established communications technology called radio frequency identification (RFID), which transfers data using minimal energy.”
I went on to describe the benefits of backscatter communication, which is a cornerstone of the Reynolds Lab. This provided each reader, regardless of their familiarity with neurotechnology, with a foundational understanding of this research project.
“To understand how backscatter communication works, imagine being in a dark room where you have a flashlight, and somebody else has a mirror. Your goal is to communicate with each other, and reflecting or not reflecting the light can be a signal. From an electronics perspective, it would take a significant amount of power to run the flashlight, but the mirror requires almost no power.”
Write about neural engineering in a way that describes its impact
For example, when describing research about brain-computer interfaces or deep brain stimulators, I focus on how this research will inform the development of therapeutic devices and long-term treatments.
Break content down into manageable parts
In most of my stories, I include sub-headers to break up the content into manageable parts. That way, the reader can identify the key themes in the story and follow-up on the parts that interest them most.
Include a call to action
I end my stories with opportunities for follow-up with related articles or points of contact. For example, after writing a profile about Hannah Werbel, a 2019 recipient of the Dean’s Medal at the University of Washington, I invited readers to learn more about her work:
Contrastingly, another article highlighted the CNT’s Ten Hundred Words competition, where graduate students were challenged to explain their research in 90 seconds using only the thousand most common words in the English language:
Are you a research scientist? Try writing about your own research with the ten hundred most common words in the English language using the Up-Goer Five Text Editor.
Ultimately, I am so glad that I contributed to the CNT’s mission of making their work accessible to the public. Here are a few of the stories that I’ve written.
High school students from the UW DO-IT Scholars Program visited the center learn more about the CNT’s research and how they could contribute to the field as future engineers, researchers, and ethicists.
Former CNT summer program participant, Hannah Werbel, and CNT undergraduate research assistant, Hannah Martens, both received the UW College of Arts & Sciences Dean’s Medal at the University of Washington in 2019. In this article, learn more about Werbel, her educational background and how her experience at the CNT sparked her interest in computer science. I wrote the article in a Q&A format so readers could learn more about Werbel in a conversational way.
Investigating how learning to use a brain-computer interface impacts connectivity in the whole brain
This research focused on recent research about changes in the brain associated with learning how to use a brain-computer interface (BCI), a device that interacts with the body’s nervous system and can potentially be used to restore function in people with severe motor disorders. This project explored how proficient use of BCIs can lead to changes in brain activity, and if changes due to learning how to use the BCI persist after the person is no longer actively engaged with the device.
The Center is committed to supporting diverse populations, including women, in their pursuit of STEM fields both inside and outside the classroom. The Center supports this goal by connecting current students with female professionals in the field through the Women's Career-Mentoring Lunch series. This event creates a space for women to chat, build community and make connections with mentors or role models in STEM fields.