The Institute for Neural Engineering Graduates Inaugural Class of Master’s Degree Students

Illustration of the brain
Article Summary
  • The first class of students from the University of Miami’s Institute for Neural Engineering earned Master’s degrees.
  • The program trains scientists to diagnose and treat brain disorders and spinal cord injuries across a broad spectrum of disciplines.
  • Six students are currently enrolled in the neural engineering program, with 10 more matriculating in the upcoming Fall semester.

The University of Miami’s Institute for Neural Engineering is graduating its first cohort of three master’s students.

The students worked on interdisciplinary projects alongside experts in neuroscience, engineering, computer science, rehabilitation and more across several of the university’s colleges and departments.

W. Dalton Dietrich, Ph.D., co-director of the Institute for Neural Engineering and professor of neurological surgery, neurology, biomedical engineering and cell biology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, said, “It’s a multi-disciplinary program that actually touches all the campuses of the university.”

The Team Science Neural Engineering Vision

The neural engineering degree program is the first of its kind in the country. It brings together researchers from disciplines across the University of Miami to address some of the most pressing questions in neuroscience, such as how to help people with traumatic brain injuries or degenerative diseases.

Dr. Suhrud Rajguru
Dr. Suhrud Rajguru, the neural engineering program co-director, says the academic discipline derives strength from its multidisciplinary nature.

“At the University of Miami, we have a big opportunity, given the expertise that we have in these areas,” said Suhrud Rajguru, Ph.D., co-director of the Institute for Neural Engineering and a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Miami. “This program has partnerships between biomedical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, biology, chemistry, physics, math and neuroscience, as well as the Miller School of Medicine, the Stem Cell Institute, the Institute for Human Genetics, public health sciences, bioinformatics and data sciences.”

Attracted to Multidisciplinary Studies

The program’s multidisciplinary nature stood out to Julia Decker, one of the graduating students.

“I was looking for what my next steps would be” after finishing her premed bachelor’s degree, she said. “I started looking through Master’s degree options and saw the program. I thought, ‘Neural engineering? What is that?’ I didn’t even know it existed. But I thought it blended neuroscience nicely with my interests in mathematics and physics.”

During her undergraduate work, Decker spent some time working in a physical therapy clinic with paralyzed patients. She’s especially interested in how patients like this may someday be able to regrow neurons to repair damage or use technology to bypass severed neuronal connections.

“I think to find the best options for patients suffering from neurological conditions, we must consider multiple, creative, problem-solving tools and strategies, which is exactly the type of design thinking that the engineering prospective teaches,” Decker said. “For example, one neural engineering approach for patients with paralysis that we learned about is the various methods to record and process signals from a patient’s brain and interpret those signals to do actions. These technics can do anything from moving a robotic arm to selecting options on a screen to driving race cars.”

At the University of Miami, Decker worked on research in the lab of Daniel Peleaz, Ph.D., a research associate professor of ophthalmology at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute.

“We did experiments to show time-lapse analysis of the fluorescently tagged neural activity in tadpoles that regrow their optic nerve,” Decker said.

Axons, a part of the neuron that sends signals to other cells, typically do not regenerate after injuries in humans. Tadpoles, however, do regenerate them. The Peleaz lab research could help scientists learn to stimulate cell growth in vivo, as a sprouting axon locates its target and creates a new synapse. The hope is that understanding these mechanisms can allow humans to combine tools that nurture and guide internal environments and facilitate repair of important neural pathways after injury. Such therapies could improve function in people whose neurons are damaged due to injury or disease.

Future Neural Engineers

The two students graduating alongside Decker are Aditya Lellapalli and Felicia Minott.

Lellapalli worked with Odelia Schwartz, Ph.D., a University of Miami associate professor of computer science, on characterizing the statistical dependencies between artificial neurons across deep layers of neural networks.

Felicia Minott worked with Abhishek Prasad, Ph.D., an associate professor of biomedical engineering at the Miller School and The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, on decoding multi-class motor imagery signals collected with electroencephalograms.

Dr. W. Dalton Dietrich, sitting at his desk
Co-director Dr. W. Dalton Dietrich says the best scientists in the world are coming to Miami to contribute to the neural engineering program.

“The program allows the students to develop competencies in new and emerging areas and prepares them for success in the long-term. The breadth of opportunities for students in neural engineering is just tremendous,” said Dr. Rajguru.

“We’re recruiting some of the best scientists in the world come to Miami and help us develop these multidisciplinary programs to diagnose and treat brain disorders and spinal cord injuries,” said Dr. Deitrich. “But more importantly, the goal is to recruit and train the next generation of scientists that become neuro-engineers.”

In addition to the graduating class, six students are currently enrolled and more than 10 will be joining in the Fall 2024 semester. These students have backgrounds in neuroscience, genetics, computer science, physics, engineering and a variety of STEM-related disciplines and are encouraged to pursue their specific interests at the University of Miami.

“The students that come into the program have opportunities to go into the operating rooms, visit the clinics and interact directly with patients,” said Dr. Rajguru. “They have opportunities to go in and learn about preclinical models and clinical trials, and debate about bioethics of new technologies. They learn about latest technologies that are coming in into the field.”

Dr. Dietrich emphasized students are able to train for a wide range of careers, from basic to clinical research and even regulatory roles with the government. In addition to studying alongside scientists at institutes across the University of Miami, students can make connections with experts in industry.

“This makes it an extremely unique and powerful program,” he said.

One of the next steps will be to expand the program to offer a Ph.D. track. For now, Decker says her next step is medical school. When asked what advice she’d give future neural engineering students, she said, “Don’t be afraid to talk to people and to network with the University of Miami’s school of medicine. Ask questions, explore your curiosities and find out what inspiring work there is to be a part of.”

Tags: Dr. W. Dalton Dietrich III, Institute for Neural Engineering, medical education, team science