As part of RO1 grant funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), two graduate students from UNO Biomechanics were awarded Supplemental Diversity Grants through the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
The supplemental funding allows students Claudia Cortes Reyes and Chris Copeland to contribute to the project — how a child’s brain adapts to the use of 3D-printed prosthetic limbs — by performing smaller research projects under the mentorship of Associate Professor Dr. Jorge Zuniga from UNO Biomechanics.
"The NIH provides funding to students who work very hard and who have supported successful labs and research projects. Claudia and Chris are now running their own small-cited projects, which is perfect because there's more room for learning. They are learning how to lead and how to develop and manage a project," explained Zuniga.
"When they run their own labs and apply for their own funding, they will be more likely to get it because their names have been associated with a project that's happening. They will also be eligible for higher level NIH grants. And of course they will be more employable because every university in the nation is looking for faculty with previous NIH funding experience. That's the beauty of it."
The funding enhances the diversity of the research workforce by recruiting and supporting students, postdoctorates, and investigators from diverse backgrounds, including those from groups that have been shown to be underrepresented in health-related research.
"I often tell students that no matter whatever background they have, they can go into a program and succeed. They have it in themselves, because I see it. I see it every day," said Zuniga.
"What they may need help with is breaking down their goal to make it reachable, make it something they can grab, but that's where our team comes in. We have about 15 people in the lab, two postdocs, several doctoral, master's, and undergraduate students. We, as a family, work on all the projects, but the responsibility of making sure the progress goes the right direction is for those students who received the funding. But we're always here to support the success of the project and the student."
Claudia Cortes Reyes
3D Printed Prostheses for Children: A Tool to Monitor Upper Limb Movement
- BS in Biomechanics '18
- MS in Biomechanics '20
- Current doctoral student, Doctor of Physical Therapy, UNMC
Claudia's family emigrated from Mexico when she was 7-years-old, and her three siblings all attended UNO. Claudia followed her older sister to UNO through the Goodrich Scholarship Program.
"The whole family was at UNO, and I'm a huge family person. So it was the natural choice for me," explained Claudia.
Claudia likes to see how things work, so she initially started in IT, switched her major to Kinesiology, but eventually clicked with the field of Biomechanics.
For her NIH-funded project, Claudia is working with children between 7 and 12 years of age — half who use an upper-limb prosthetic device, half in a control group — implementing an 8-week home intervention protocol centered around play activities, developed by an occupational therapist. She hopes to prove that the protocol creates changes in brain activity and help the children develop motor memories.
"We are teaching them how to use their prosthetic so they build memories related to how they move. In the future, they will recall that information, be able to say, 'I remember how to use this. I remember what muscles I need to activate in order to get this to open and close.' That's the idea behind the home interventions and our research."
Development and Validation of a Low-Cost 3D Printed Upper Limb Prosthetic Simulator
- BS in Biomechanics '18
- MS in Biomechanics '20
- Current doctoral student, PhD in Biomechanics & Kinesiology
Chris grew up in Omaha and attended UNO on a Regents Scholarship so he could stay close to his family. He noticed the Biomechanics Research Building when it was being built and during a tour, he met Dr. Zuniga, started volunteering in the department, and switched his major from IT.
"Nothing against computer scientists or data analysts, but Biomechanics resonated with me. It felt more impactful than sitting at a desk coding."
Chris aspires to develop more useful, functional prosthetics that are less likely to be rejected — a recent study found that 45% of children with upper limb deficiencies reject their prosthetic device. For Chris' NIH-funded project, he is using brain imaging to see if a prosthetic simulator tool used during training will emulate the neural and muscular responses of using an actual prosthesis.
"Can I mimic what changes happen in the brain during prosthetic training? If I can, then I can apply this to a large population of people and conduct studies that would be helpful for testing different prosthetic training paradigms," said Chris.
This story appeared in the most recent issue of the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences Annual Report.