Fralin Fellow uses engineering to improve the biomedical field
Millions of people every year struggle with neurological disorders that negatively impact their quality of life. Elieser Mejia, a senior majoring in electrical engineering, is passionate about advancing the field of medicine while bridging the disciplinary gap between electrical engineering and neuroscience.
“There is a very clear and direct impact that advancement of the biomedical field has on people,” Mejia said.
He believes that developing further understanding of the dynamics of certain neurological disorders requires new tools that are capable of mapping electrophysiological activity with high spatial and temporal resolution.
In the long-term, Mejia hopes to use nanotechnology to provide medical experts with new approaches for studying and understanding the various mechanisms involved in the communication and function of neural networks in such disorders as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.
“For neuroscientists, surface-enhanced raman spectroscopy is a new avenue of research they can get into,” Mejia said.
To achieve his goal, Mejia is determined to gain as much experience in the field as possible to become an expert in nanotechnology and neuroscience. Nanoscience is the study and control of things at the nanoscale, about 1 to 100 nanometers, while nanotechnology refers to the science, engineering, and technology used to manipulate matter at the atomic and molecular scale.
“I chose nanotechnology because of its broad range of impacts and potential for advancing technology across all fields, specifically biomedical applications. Seeing its ability to make significant improvements in the biomedical field interested me the most,” Mejia explained.
Mejia is one of 15 recipients of the Fralin Undergraduate Research Fellowship, a program created by Dennis Dean, director of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, in partnership with the Office of Undergraduate Research.
The program seeks to fund students from underrepresented groups to increase diversity in undergraduate research. Each Fellow receives $1,000 to conduct research over the course of one academic year. Additionally, the Fellows develop a close mentoring relationship with their faculty advisor.
Mejia, along with the other Fralin Undergraduate Research Fellows, recently presented their research at the Dennis Dean Undergraduate Research and Creative Scholarship Conference in the Moss Arts Center. The Fellows, along with other Virginia Tech students, presented posters and e-portfolios showcasing their work as undergraduate researchers.
“During the summer of 2018, I knew I wanted to do research in the electrical engineering and computer engineering departments because I had decided I want to get my master’s degree from the graduate school,” Mejia said.
Eager to get some experience under his belt, Mejia contacted Wei Zhou, an assistant professor from the Department of Electrical Engineering, to inquire about research opportunities that would prepare him for graduate school. Although Mejia was concerned his lack of prior experience would limit the opportunities available to him, Zhou believed that Mejia’s ambition and passion would be a great addition to his research team.
For Mejia’s research project, he is focusing on developing a low-cost, high-throughput, scalable fabrication process to produce nanostructures with properties suitable for intracellular stimulation, molecular sensing, and electrical recording. The devices concentrate near-infrared pulsed light onto a nanoscale-sized spot to locally heat the cell membrane and generate electrical pulses, which move across neurons.
“What is unique about it is that we are exciting the cells optically and then recording that information electrically," Mejia explained. "At the same time, we are able to acquire molecular information through surface-enhanced raman spectroscopy. Since we have these different modes we are operating in, we are able to do many things at once; other researchers can normally only do one or two things at a time."
When the devices undergo shifts in energy from scattered light, real-time bio-chemical and molecular signaling information is provided through a method known as surface enhanced raman spectroscopy. An additional component of the device is its electrical recording ability, which is achieved by patterning the nanostructures on planar electrodes.
“Right now, it is just a proof-of-concept,” Mejia said.
With Mejia’s research focus being the brain-machine interface at the nanoscale, the project starts at the smallest of scales by determining whether the system can stimulate and record the action potentials in acute brain slices from adult mice. Although starting small, this step is pivotal to the future direction of his research.
After discovering a successful proof-of-concept, the next milestone is to integrate the nanostructures into a flexible mesh, which can be injected into living animals to study the bioelectrical and biochemical activities in response to drugs.
With support from his adviser and through collaboration with Ian F. Kimbrough from the Department of Neuroscience, Mejia’s research findings will help to prove that nanostructures in cultured and living systems can better support the study of cellular dynamics in real-time with high spatial resolution. With these results, Mejia could be introducing a new research approach for neuroscientists.
Mejia’s research project may not only advance the biomedical field, but it also has an end-goal of addressing the concerns and improving medical convenience for patients.
Although still at the beginning of his research, Mejia’s ultimate goal is to provide patients suffering from neurological disorders access to devices that will be biocompatible, functional, and inexpensive.
“Overall, I want to improve accessibility, affordability, and efficiency of medical technology to help people dealing with neurological diseases,” Mejia said.
Because combining nanotechnology and neuroscience is new to the biomedical field, it will be years before patients are directly impacted by the findings of Mejia’s research; however, through gaining a proof-of-concept, Zhou and Mejia will be opening the door for further research for biomedical advancements.
Mejia’s drive to advance the medical field with these new brain-related treatments based on information gained from nano-bio interfaces will continue to propel him further into his research. After graduation this May, Mejia plans to pursue a master’s degree at Virginia Tech and further his education in electrical engineering and neuroscience interdisciplinary research.
-Written by Ebone Smith